(photos: Ed Szczepanski / USA Today Sports)

The San Jose Sharks returned home after weathering a seven-game road trip out East that started in Dallas with a win and ended in Buffalo with a loss and a lopsided 3-4 record. After only playing five games at home, the club was ready to return home and face the Florida Panthers, whom they saw on that road trip. To start off this game with a bit of perspective, the Sharks have had 16 road games so far this season out of a total of 21 games, while the Panthers have had 16 total games.

Antti Niemi got the call after Troy Grosenick played two consecutive games. This was Jason Demers’ 300th NHL career game and Patrick Marleau’s 400th consecutive game, the longest in franchise history. The big story, though, was Coach Todd McLellan’s decision to mix up the lines a bit. On defense, he put Demers and Mirco Mueller together. Mueller usually plays with Brent Burns, who was lined up with Scott Hannan. For his forwards, he moved Joe Pavelski to the second line with Matt Nieto and Logan Couture, and moved Patrick Marleau to the first line with Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl, essentially switching Pavelski and Marleau. Thornton and Pavelski have been on hot streaks, and Marleau and Couture have not.

Marleau usually averages around 30 goals a season, and while it’s still very premature in the season to make any sort of judgment on his performance, he had only one goal and two assists on the road trip (the last 7 games) and five total goals so far this season coming into this Panthers game. Couture only registered 4 assists on that road trip. More scoring is expected of these two.

For the Panthers, Rocco Grimaldi flew up from his San Antonio Rampage game to meet the Panthers at the Kings on November 18. He played two professional games in one day, registering two shots in the Kings game and notching three shots and some great passes to linemate Tomas Fleischmann  in this game. He is definitely making his push and making it known that he wants to be at the NHL level.

Game On

Right as the puck dropped, the Panthers scored 24 seconds in, a redirect by Nick Bjugstad. Were the Sharks still getting their legs and was Niemi caught off-guard? Bjugstad called it “puck luck.”

“We got that first goal right away. ‘Kuli’ made a great shot and I just kind of got my stick on it, so it was a little luck – a little ‘puck luck.’ It was a good start for us.”

A good start, indeed. The Panthers started off their California road trip with stops in Anaheim and Los Angeles, and an even keel record of 1-1. Perhaps already being in the road mode helped them coming into this one.

 

Getting in Roberto Luongo‘s Eyes.

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A lot of back and forth pursued during the first period with the Sharks looking a bit confused and unorganized in the neutral zone and on the forecheck. Couture even noted that “we’re still struggling to find a way to come through the neutral zone with possession and with speed with the puck.” Also,  it was clearly evident right away that the Sharks’ D would somehow have to get past the Panthers, who were blocking a lot of shots.

Tommy Wingels commented in a post-game interview:

“I don’t think we were doing the best job of getting in [Luongo’s] eyes and creating second opportunities. In a game where there’s very little offense and grade-A opportunities, we’ve got to create them ourselves by being around the net and being in [Luongo’s] eyes.”

 

Power Plays and Penalty Shots, Oh My!

Couture did get through to Luongo off a rebound from Pavelski. Those extra efforts to push the puck past Luongo evened the score on a power play. The Panthers got their shot at a power play goal on an amazing shot from Bjugstad that went straight to the back of the net. 2-1, Bjugstad’s second on the night.

Great efforts continued in the third on both sides. The Panthers had three power plays, all unsuccessful, due in large part to Niemi’s performance. He made an incredible glove save on the Panthers’ second PP of the period that really helped keep the Sharks in this game.

It’s not too often you see a penalty shot rewarded, but that happened. Marleau got his chance on Luongo, but Luongo had other plans in mind: “I know him a little bit. I was waiting him out. Either five-hole or blocker, and once he kept it I was able to get a blocker on it and make the save.” Still, it was exciting hockey. It’s tough to get past Lu.

Niemi was pulled with less than two minutes left in the game and the Sharks were desperate for a miracle. Marleau got his second chance at Lu on a pass from Hertl and Thornton, that landed in the back of the net with 33 seconds remaining. The Sharks had tied it up. It seems that McLellan’s decision to put those three together was a good call.

 

Antti Niemi vs. Roberto Luongo

After one of the final dry scrapes between the third period and the overtime period, which was newly instated this season and that Toronto decided to pull the plug on this week, OT began with power play time left over from the third for the Panthers. In fact, most of the five minutes felt like a super long penalty kill for the Sharks and their defense. The star of OT was Niemi.

Then the (dreaded) shootout.

For the Sharks: Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Brent Burns

For the Panthers: Jonathan Huberdeau, Jussi Jokinen, and Nick Bjugstad

Couture shot quickly and hard through the five-hole and Jokinen was next up to make it 1-1. Burns clanked the post on the next round and then Bjugstad got the puck through Niemi to finally end the game. And the Panthers have swept the season series.

Born and raised on the beach in the Bay Area, Cassie grew up watching football and rooting for the San Francisco 49ers. It wasn't until college that she discovered the wonderful sport of hockey, and over the past decade she hasn't loved another sport as much. When she's not busy coordinating her schedule around the San Jose Sharks' game schedule, she enjoys her job as an editor, stays connected to her favorite place, Hawaii, by dancing the hula, loves reading, writing, cats, and long walks on the beach, and is a strong advocate for the dying Oxford comma.

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