The 80th game of the season marked a first, albeit one the Sharks didn’t want to check off so late in the year, let alone at all.
For the #SJSharks , it was their first regulation loss this season when leading after 2 periods. It was Jamie Benn's 40th career game-winning goal, first vs SJ. 16 of his career GWG have come in the 3rd period, his most in any period. #DALvsSJS— Darin Stephens (@SharksStats) April 4, 2018
Thanks to the 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night, San Jose fell to 29-1-2 when leading after 40 minutes. As a result, the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks gained ground in the Pacific Division standings, and trail the Sharks in the race for home-ice advantage in the first round, respectively, by two points with two games remaining and three with three remaining.
San Jose’s loss was a lesson in score effects, the phenomenon where games tend to get closer, not farther apart. The thinking, long backed up by research, goes that leading teams tend to sit on their advantage, and trailing teams begin to attack with abandon the longer they trail and/or the larger the deficit.
This notion is reflected in a team’s five-on-five possession numbers when leading. For instance, no team this year has controlled the majority of shot attempts (50-plus percent corsi-for) when they've led, and no more than a handful of teams in a single season have managed the feat since the NHL first made shot attempt data publicly available in 2007.
The Sharks are another clear example. With a lead this season, they have attempted 45.44 percent of the five-on-five shots. After taking a two-goal lead Tuesday, they were out-attempted 44-39 (47 percent corsi-for).
It got worse in the third period, which they entered with a one-goal lead. Despite that, San Jose was out-attempted 24-8 during five-on-five play (25 percent corsi-for) over the final 20 minutes.
That's been the norm for most of the season, albeit the disparity is not as large. In the 32 third periods they’ve entered with a lead this season, the Sharks have only won the five-on-five possession battle seven teams. In those third periods, San Jose’s controlled just 41.3 percent of the shot attempts.
This makes sense. While the Sharks are playing to protect a late lead, their opponents are trying to claw back. That wasn’t necessarily San Jose’s stated intention headed into the third period on Tuesday, as Logan Couture told reporters the “game plan was to go and attack” in the final frame. But, it didn’t matter: Dallas was still the aggressor, as the trailing team so often is.
It also makes sense that, occasionally, the game will get close enough to result in the leading team eventually losing. The Sharks, for example, have lost three of the 32 games in which they’ve led going into the third period this year, and only four of those 32 games have gone to overtime or the shootout.
Yet, the rarity of the loss masks the reality of San Jose's standings situation, and provides little solace for a team that’s lost four in a row. After finding ways to win for most of last month, the Sharks are now finding ways to lose as the season winds down.
The circumstances may be understandable, and there may be some signs the skid won’t last much longer. Regardless, San Jose is now left with a razor-thin margin for error in pursuit of home-ice advantage in the postseason.
Tuesday’s loss to Dallas is more than likely an outlier. The timing of the loss, rather than its nature, should be the Sharks' chief concern.