TORONTO – After being a step behind the Maple Leafs all night on Tuesday, the Sharks were in desperate need of an offensive spark.
It came from one of the unlikeliest sources.
Justin Braun found room in the slot, received a pass from Chris Tierney along the wall, and unleashed a swift backhand that cruised past goalie Frederik Andersen with just 7:17 left to go in regulation. It was Braun’s first goal since March 26, 2016, 34 games ago.
That score cut the Leafs’ lead to 2-1, and jolted the San Jose bench. Joe Pavelski scored about two minutes later on the power play, and the Sharks went on to win 3-2 in a shootout at Air Canada Centre.
“We needed somebody to make a play, and I thought it was a great play by Brauny,” Pete DeBoer said. “He got up the ice, beat one of their guys, and stuck one in the net.”
Up to that point, and especially through the first two periods, the Sharks just weren’t sustaining any offensive pressure in falling behind, 2-0. They had 26 shots on Andersen through 40 minutes, but 11 of them came on the power play, and too many were easy stops for the former Ducks goalie.
Toronto is a noticeably faster team this season thanks to some skilled young forwards with bright futures. They weren’t allowing the Sharks, who were missing Marc-Edouard Vlasic, to get up the ice.
“We weren’t breaking out,” Pavelski said. “When you don’t break out clean it’s tough to get that first guy in on the forecheck, with the second guy coming with support. I think early that’s just kind of what it was. … Defensively, you can tell they’re a lot more detailed.”
Braun said: “Guys just didn’t have the grit, weren’t going. It was top to bottom. I think we found it in the third, but we can’t come out in games like that and just be that flat.”
After Pavelski tied it, a wild overtime ensued in which both teams had some point blank chances. Martin Jones denied Morgan Rielly and Mitch Marner in the extra session, while Andersen stopped a Kevin Labanc breakaway.
It took until mid-December, but the Sharks finally had their first shootout of the season. Jones, who was outstanding all night, stopped Marner, Auston Matthews and Nikita Soshnikov while Logan Couture was the only shooter to succeed.
“We’ve practiced it a little bit,” DeBoer said of the shootout. “Our personnel sets up that we feel pretty confident in those situations. Jonesy was our best shootout player. He was great on all three [attempts].”
Jones said: “[I just] try and think about who’s going to shoot and what moves they might do. Just stay patient, and try and make a good read.”
The victory was the Sharks’ second straight in which they were far from their best, including a 4-3 win over Carolina on Saturday when they registered a season low 20 shots. Still, they felt they may have deserved better in the two games before that, regulation losses to Ottawa and Anaheim in which they surrendered a late third period game winner.
Funny how things have a way of evening out.
“It’s nice to win. … The Ottawa game, Anaheim game, probably deserved to get some points out of those ones, and we didn’t,” Couture said. “These last two kind of got us back, with games that you don’t know if you really deserve to get points. That’s the way things work out in an 82-game season.”
The Sharks’ trip will get progressively harder throughout the week. They’ll play in Ottawa on Wednesday, Montreal on Friday, and Chicago on Sunday.
However they did it, they managed to get two points in what was the most winnable game of the four. Put another way, they were fortunate to be playing the Maple Leafs, because against more dangerous opponents they would likely have been buried after two.
“We found a way,” DeBoer said. “You’ve got to win all kinds of different ways in this league.”
Braun said: “Thankfully we came away with the win, but a lot of times when you’re that flat through two periods, you’re not going to come away with anything.”