The Sharks (18-20-4) didn't lose any ground in their increasingly uphill playoff push after Wednesday's 4-1 defeat to the Anaheim Ducks (14-23-7).
It sure felt like they did.
San Jose ended its five-game homestand with its third consecutive loss, going just 1-4-0 at SAP Center during the critical stretch. All four of those losses were against the Ducks and Los Angeles Kings, teams the Sharks were a combined 9-1-1 against prior to the homestand and the only two squads trailing San Jose in the West Division standings.
In Wednesday's loss, the Sharks looked every bit as good as their goal differential -- minus-30, excluding goals awarded for shootout wins -- would indicate, and not much like a team trying to scratch and claw into a playoff race.
"Anaheim [was] a little bit more hungry, and they play for nothing," Hertl said of the Sharks' effort against the last-place Ducks on Monday and Wednesday. "And it's tough, you know. It sucks when you don't score for so long, and you try to make some play, it doesn't go your way. And it's not easy, but it wasn't [good enough] from us."
Rookie goaltender Josef Korenar made his first NHL start Wednesday, stopping 23 of 27 shots. The 23-year-old, who has just 75 games of AHL experience in parts of three seasons, looked overmatched at times, mixing in moments of genuine promise, including a doorstep denial of Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf.
Korenar didn't get much support from his more experienced teammates, though, until it was too late. Erik Karlsson's third-period goal -- San Jose's only tally in the last two games against Anaheim -- briefly gave the Sharks life, but he'll think more about the behind-the-net giveaway in the first period that led to the Ducks' opener.
Forward Evander Kane was the only Shark with multiple 5-on-5 high-danger chances (three, according to Natural Stat Trick), but his late penalty essentially ended San Jose's already faint comeback hopes in the final minutes.
San Jose's lineup was littered with listless performances, especially early on. The Ducks attempted 30 first-period shots to the Sharks' 13. Korenar's load lightened in the second and third periods, but the chances he did face were much better than the ones his teammates generated at the other end.
"I think there's a lot of nerves in his game tonight, but I thought he held his own," coach Bob Boughner said. "We only scored a goal there with a 6-on-5 situation at the end. ... We didn't do a lot around him to support him offensively tonight, but all in all, I thought he got better as the game went on."
The Sharks have now lost four of five after winning a season-high four straight games, all as their schedule becomes considerably tougher. San Jose won't play a team below it in the standings for the remainder of the season, with seven scheduled matchups against the Stanley Cup-contending Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights.
Such stark regression against the division's bottom-feeders is undoubtedly disappointing for the Sharks, but it's not entirely unexpected. This is, after all, a team that had the Western Conference's worst record a season ago.
Youth propelled them to a four-game winning streak earlier this month, but youth is also prone to inconsistency, let alone amid an unrelenting schedule in an unprecedented season. Players like Korenar, Mario Ferraro and John Leonard, to name a few, should be better for the experience.
But the Sharks' aging core has been there and done that, and a close-but-not-quite bid for the division's final playoff spot only serves to add another year to their odometers. San Jose still is four points back of the fourth-place St. Louis Blues, who lost Wednesday, but the clock is ticking on the Sharks avoiding their first two-season playoff drought since they drafted Patrick Marleau in 1997.
"We gotta find a way to get our swagger back, play with confidence," winger Timo Meier said. "It's unacceptable how we played the last two games, but we gotta leave those games behind and move on."