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San Jose Sharks start to find an identity, and a maybe a path forward


NHL: Bob Boughner, Erik Karlsson now look to slow down the Colorado Avalanche again Wednesday at SAP Center

SAN JOSE — Bob Boughner mentioned the ‘I’ word in his analysis of what was the San Jose Sharks’ most complete victory of the season.

“We’ve got a little bit of an identity,” Boughner said Monday after the Sharks’ 6-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche. “We have a lot of work ahead of us. But if we continue to play the way we did tonight, we’ll be in a lot of hockey games. We’ll be competing for points every night.”

It’s far too soon to call Monday’s victory a watershed-type of moment for the Sharks, especially when one looks at what’s on the docket for the rest of the week. The Sharks have another game with what’s sure to be a motivated Avalanche team on Wednesday, followed by two games with the West Division-leading Vegas Golden Knights coming up this weekend. Any momentum built Monday night will be hard to sustain.

But two days after they let valuable points slip their grasp Saturday in a 7-6 loss to the St. Louis Blues, the Sharks (8-9-2) got the type of buy-in they need if they want to keep pace with elite teams like the Avalanche on any given night.

Maybe the way the Sharks lost Saturday was a wake-up call.

“Our toughest job is going to be to back this up and try and get on a roll and win a few in a row,” Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson said. “That’s been a problem for us most of the year.

“We play (the Avalanche) again and they’re going to be a completely different team probably. They’re not going to be happy about what they did out there today, and we’ve got to find a way to get even better. If we play at the same level we did today, I don’t think it’s going to be the same outcome.”

To have any shot of getting into the playoff, the Sharks have to cut down on the goals against. They’re 30th out 31 teams in goals allowed per game at 3.79. Not since the mid-1990s have they allowed goals at such a staggering rate.

The Sharks did a good job Monday of limiting their mistakes when they had the puck in the neutral zone. When there was any doubt, it was getting chipped in deep, making Colorado’s speedy defenseman and forward come the length of the ice if they wanted to create a scoring opportunity.

A third forward stayed high in the offensive zone to guard against quick breakouts. If a defenseman pinched, a forward quickly filled in behind.

And when all else failed, their goalie bailed them out, as Martin Jones stopped 33 of 35 shots to be in line for another start Wednesday.

Leading the way again was the Sharks’ top line of Logan Couture, Evander Kane and Kevin Labanc. But Boughner also saw that line receive some needed reinforcements.

Timo Meier has played some of his best hockey of the season the last two games, giving the second line the kind of spark it needs in the absence of Tomas Hertl. Meier had two goals and an assist in the Sharks’ 7-6 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Saturday, and added three assists Monday night, including one on what turned out to be the game-winning goal by Rudolfs Balcers.

“He’s figuring out what he needs to do every night to be a dominant player in this league,” Boughner said of Meier. “He’s using his speed, he’s using his size. He looks excited to get over the boards every shift.”

Boughner also liked what he saw from Patrick Marleau’s line with wingers Ryan Donato and John Leonard. That line wasn’t quite as good Monday as it was Saturday against the Blues, but Leonard used his speed and skill to score on a breakaway at the 10:11 mark of the third period for what was then a 5-2 Sharks lead.

Through it all, the Sharks just kept working, playing smart, sound hockey against one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 1: San Jose Sharks goaltender Martin Jones (31) makes a save against Colorado Avalanche’s Mikko Rantanen (96) in the second period at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

“It felt like we didn’t hesitate,” Karlsson said. “We didn’t play not to lose tonight. I thought that we played to win the game. That doesn’t mean that that’s always gonna happen, but it felt like that was our mentality going into the third.”

Boughner and the Sharks have to be encouraged by what they’ve seen from Karlsson in his first two games back from a groin injury.

Karlsson had six shots on goal in just under 21 minutes of ice time Saturday, and played 22:33 on Monday. His power play goal at the 7:53 mark of the third period, his first goal of the season, gave the Sharks a 4-2 lead.

“He’s doing those things that we’re used to seeing him do,” Boughner said. “You can see he’s exploding out of traffic. He’s got that separation speed back in his game. I just thought he’s been a real confident player.”

Given the unpredictable nature of his injury, the Sharks would love to see Karlsson play this type of hockey for as long as he can this season.

“It’s just putting it all on the line all of the time. If I break, I break. There’s nothing I can do about it,” Karlsson said of his groin injury. “I’ve put in the time to make sure that I’m as prepared and strong as possible. Stuff like that you can’t really control, so it’s not something that I worry about at all.

“You’ve got to try and give it your all, and I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am and I’m at the top of the level right now, so there’s no holding back.”

The Avalanche’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen had a combined 12 shots, with Landeskog scoring a power play goal at the 4:21 mark of the second period.

“We’ve been tasked with going against the other team’s top line,” Couture said of his line. “It was a challenge against one of the best lines in the world, and I thought we did a pretty good job.”

Now the Sharks try again to win consecutive games for the first time this season. We’ll also know more then if Monday’s win was just a one-off, or if the Sharks are really starting to figure out who they are.

“They’re a good hockey team, and we’ve got another good hockey team coming in at the end of the week,” Boughner said of the Avs and Golden Knights. “For us, I’ve said this all along: we have to have contributions through the lineup, play a certain style, play with an identity that you saw tonight, and that’ll keep you in a lot of games.”

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