SAN JOSE – Glancing at the Sharks' upcoming schedule for the next few weeks, there aren't a whole lot of games against legitimate contenders on the horizon. Sandwiched around the late-February bye week are meetings with plenty of non-playoff opponents and others that may be in position, but are nothing more than pretenders or first round fodder.
Facing the Blackhawks in the first game coming out of the All-Star break, though, kicking off the unofficial beginning of the push to the playoffs, had a big game feel to it. Finding a way to win the rubber match of the three-game season series against the three-time recent champs would be the perfect way for the Sharks to remind the league, and perhaps themselves, that they're still primed to challenge for a Stanley Cup.
A goal from their hottest player, Patrick Marleau, along with a late score by Tomas Hertl and a characteristic solid performance from goalie Martin Jones helped the Sharks to a 3-1 win in an entertaining and energetic Tuesday night tilt at SAP Center.
"Winning is always a good thing, especially against that team," said Jones, who made 24 saves. "It's always fun playing those guys. They get your attention [because] they're so good. It's always a tough game against them. It's always a lot of fun."
It's only fun if you win, of course, and Hertl's goal with just 2:03 to go in regulation was the key moment. In what was just his second game back since he missed 32 straight with a right knee injury that required surgery, Hertl got to the front of the net and slipped in a loose puck off of Corey Crawford to break a 1-1 tie.
The plan is for the 23-year-old to return to the center position at some point, but for now, he's still getting his legs under him on the left wing of the top line. It was his first goal since Oct. 27, and it was huge.
"I'm happy I score because it was a long time, like three months," Hertl said. "It was a big [celebration] for me."
Joe Pavelski, who had three points including a late empty net goal, said: "It's going to take a few games, but he's jumped right in [and] he's made an impact. It's definitely big for our team."
Marleau's goal opened the scoring with less than six minutes to go in the second period. He seemingly gave the Sharks a 1-0 lead earlier in the frame, but Mikkel Boedker was offside just before the puck was brought into the offensive zone.
He had an idea it was coming back.
"When I looked over at the bench they were all whispering there. … When I saw that, I went over there and had an idea," Marleau said.
No matter. Marleau got to the front of the net on a Sharks power play, and corralled a rebound off of Crawford's chest before flipping it through. It was career goal number 499, but more importantly, it was Marleau's sixth goal in the last four games.
Logan Couture said: "The puck finds him when he's in a groove like this. He's so streaky, and he's going to find the back of the net. We just have to keep giving him the puck."
"Patty's been excellent," Pete DeBoer said. "Best hockey I've seen him play since I've been here. He's just got to keep going."
The Sharks jumped back into first place in the Pacific all alone, and considering their weak schedule, they have a real chance to put some distance between themselves and their division opponents before the start of the bye week on Feb. 20.
While they won't face any other truly elite teams until March, the win over Chicago at this stage of the season with both teams fully rested is an encouraging sign for a club that expects to be there at the end.
"That's a playoff-type atmosphere, that's a playoff-type game," DeBoer said. "There wasn't a lot of room. Both teams were playing hard. Both teams were fresh and skating. That's as close to a playoff game in the regular season as you can get."