SAN JOSE Its an unfamiliar situation for the San Jose Sharks to be fighting and clawing to stay in the top eight in March.
So unfamiliar, in fact, that you have to wonder if the team itself even realizes where it stands after a lackluster, lethargic and languid effort for the first half of a 1-0 shutout loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night at HP Pavilion.
Sure, the Sharks showed up late in the second period and then in the third, even outshooting Buffalo 17-5 over the final 20 minutes. But the fact it took so long, after the shorthanded coaching staff had to juggle its top lines, and against an opponent that was playing in its second of back-to-back games, likely left the 100th consecutive sellout crowd shaking its collective head as it filed out of the arena.
Drew Stafford scored late in the first period and Ryan Miller made it hold up, and the fading Sharks will have gone more than a month without back-to-back wins by the time they host the dangerous St. Louis Blues on Saturday.
We definitely poured it on, said Joe Thornton of the third period. You want it for 60 minutes, but Miller is a world-class goalie. Whatever he sees he usually stops, and I dont think we had enough traffic in front of him tonight.
You obviously want to control the momentum for all 60, but I dont think its going to happen. Its just how you recover from when you lose the momentum, Brent Burns said.
The Sharks finally awoke towards the end of the second after generating few prime scoring chances through the first half of the game. By then, Miller was settled in and confident.
Matt Shaw, once again filling in for a concussed Todd McLellan, said: I thought we started slow in the first period, got better in the second, and then really played well in the third. At that point Miller was feeling it, and we really struggled to beat him.
They didnt beat him at all, in fact, despite plenty of late chances. The Sharks reunited top line of Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski had long stretches in the Sabres zone looking for the equalizer in the final frame. During one lengthy shift in the offensive zone, Miller stopped Dan Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic wrist shots, able to track the puck through traffic.
Later, TJ Galiardi led a three-on-one rush up the ice after Antti Niemi held the fort in front of the net on the other end during a scramble in front. Galiardi tried feeding Daniel Winnik at the last second, but Millers poke check prevented a shot on goal.
With 7:38 to go in the third, Miller was shaken up after getting plowed into by teammate Patrick Kaleta. He eventually got to his feet to finish off his fifth shutout of the year, turning away all 39 Sharks shots.
Obviously hes a great goalie, and one of the best for a reason, Burns said.
The Sharks havent won consecutively since Jan. 31 Feb. 2, and blew an opportunity to retake the Pacific Division lead after the Phoenix Coyotes lost to Calgary earlier in the night.
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Buffalo took a 1-0 lead on Staffords goal. After a soft neutral zone giveaway by Burns, Tyler Ennis skated the puck into the Sharks zone. Ennis found Stafford to his right, and Staffords blast from the faceoff circle deflected off of Niemi and in at 18:51.
Despite the turnover, Burns was one of the more effective players for the Sharks throughout the night, including drawing a holding call on Ville Leino late in the second period. The Sharks failed to take advantage of that opportunity to tie it before the intermission, though.
Thats hockey. Its a mistake. What do you do? You get by it, Burns said of the turnover. I think when you play a little bit more of an aggressive style, you push it. Its going to happen.
Shaw said: A low scoring game you always look at the one mistake. He played excellent, you have to give him a lot of credit for that.
Ryane Clowe, who scored the only goal in Tuesdays 1-0 win over the Flyers, had a pair of good chances early in each of the first two periods. A charging Clowe was stopped on the doorstep just 1:18 into the game on a pass from Thornton, and Miller got his glove on Clowes tip try on a nifty feed from Tommy Wingels about a minute into the second.
Similar chances. One was one my forehand, one was on my backhand, Clowe said. The first one was a good chance, but Miller was kind of over there before I got the puck. I didnt really have much of an opportunity to really put it anywhere, but it was a great play by Joe.
The second one, I felt like I had him beat.
The Sharks nearly tied it on the power play late in the second with Leino in the box.
Miller misplayed the puck in front of his own net, and Clowe tried sliding it in from the slot. Miller made the save and managed to deny Thorntons rebound attempts in front, aided by the net coming off of its moorings while the puck was still loose.
San Jose was once again without leading goal scorer Logan Couture, still suffering the effects from an apparent knee injury suffered on Sunday in Minnesota. The Sharks did welcome back newcomer Dominic Moore, though. The recent acquisition from Tampa Bay played in just his third game as a Shark and first at home after missing four games with a lower body injury. Moore skated as the third line center between Galiardi and Torrey Mitchell to start the game.
The Sharks fell to 33-23-7, and remain in seventh place in the West. We didnt get any points. Its a step back for us, said Thornton.
There isn't much room behind them.
Odds and ends: Antti Niemi stopped 18 of 19 shots. ... The Sharks were 0-for-2 on the power play and killed off all three Sabres power plays. ... Todd McLellan missed his second game with a concussion. Douglas Murray remains out with a fractured Adams apple. Andrew Desjardins and Benn Ferriero were the scratches for San Jose. ... Buffalo is 5-0-2 in its last seven games.