SAN JOSE – The Sharks already believe they’re a very good hockey team. Last season’s run to the Stanley Cup Final, and this season’s comfortable lead in the Pacific Division are examples 1A and 1B of why they’re correct about that.
But last Sunday’s lopsided loss in Minnesota, a club challenging for the President’s Trophy, was a dud. Even though it was a rare regulation defeat in the second half of a season in which the Sharks are regularly collecting points, the fact they were so soundly beaten at this late stage of the season by a club that they may have to face in the playoffs at some point had to be a bit disturbing.
Perhaps that was why they were dialed in against the NHL-leading Capitals from the drop of the puck on Thursday night, putting forth one of their more complete efforts of the season in a 4-2 victory. Every facet of their game was on point.
“That’s what it felt like. Guys came out, we didn’t miss a beat,” Joe Pavelski said.
Despite the Capitals taking a 1-0 lead on a Daniel Winnik goal, “nothing changed in our game,” said the captain. “If anything, we kind of just dug in a little deeper and our focus kind of intensified. On the bench that’s what it felt like, everyone was in there tonight. It felt good out there.”
Special teams was crucial, as the Sharks finally got their power play going while the penalty kill was a perfect 5-for-5. Logan Couture scored two goals with a man advantage, while Pavelski tipped in a low Brent Burns shot-pass in the second period in what was officially an even strength goal, but came while Brooks Orpik still had a skate in the box.
Couture and Pavelski both spoke earlier in the week about how their power play unit had to work a little harder to generate chances, as the Sharks started the night ranked 23rd in the NHL. Joe Thornton mentioned they’ve “had a lot of meetings lately,” too.
Whether it was their work ethic, Pete DeBoer’s classroom laser pointer, or a combination of the two, something finally clicked.
“When your power play goes dry for a little bit you kind of second guess yourself, and I think with a game like that we just wanted to work hard for each other, work away from the puck hard, and I think we did that,” Thornton said.
Couture said: “We watched a lot of video, noticed some stuff the last couple days, and worked on it during practice. I think tonight the biggest difference was supporting each other and working hard.”
Newcomer Jannik Hansen had an immediate impact in his debut. He assisted on Thornton’s early game-tying goal in the first period, setting up the future Hall of Famer for a one-time blast, but perhaps his biggest effect came with the Sharks down a man.
Despite having just one practice with his new team, Hansen skated for four minutes and 52 seconds on the penalty kill – tops among forwards. While it usually takes a few practices for a new player to get used to a team’s system on the PK, Hansen indicated it wasn’t all that complicated against the Capitals.
“I think every team kills the same way against them,” Hansen said. “They have a certain way and teams seem to adjust to the way they play. It’s obviously the [role] I played the most in Vancouver. I'm not a power play guy, I'm not a setup guy. I play in the trenches in front of the net, killing penalties, digging pucks out."
Thornton said: “His penalty killing tonight was huge. He had a great game, I thought.”
Hansen was credited with a team-high five hits and one shot to go along with his primary assist. His linemates were impressed, and if one game is any indication, he should remain with Thornton and Pavelski for quite some time.
“It felt like we were playing with him for a long time, it really did,” Pavelski said. “He just went, and went hard. Made a lot of plays. His speed, kind of playing on the inside, allowed us to keep a few pucks alive.”
While Hansen’s performance was notable, most of his teammates played splendidly, too. They took advantage of a chance to remind themselves – and their home fans – they can compete with the league’s best, after all.
“We know we can play against any top team in this league, and it’s a good feeling to have,” Thornton said.