SAN JOSE -- As the calendar turned to 2019, NBC Sports California took a gander at how the Sharks were looking at the halfway point of the season. While it was clear they had grown and improved over their first 41 games, there was still a question as to how they matched up against some of the toughest teams in the NHL.
On Saturday night, San Jose brought that conversation to the forefront.
Entering their matchup with the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, the Sharks knew they would be without three starting defensemen, although Jacob Middleton had been called up from the Barracuda just that morning. That made an already tough task -- facing a deep offense consisting of NHL points leader Nikita Kucherov and reigning Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman -- that much tougher. Not to mention, a power play with a reputation for taking control of games.
But the Sharks were not going to let adversity stop them. San Jose stymied Tampa Bay's scoring chances and showed no sag through the 60-minute contest, emerging with a 5-2 victory. If there has been any sign the Sharks can be the team that meets the high expectations set at the start of the season, the win over the Lightning was it.
"I think our whole group has gotten better as the season's gone on," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer told the press after the win over Tamp Bay.
Team captain Joe Pavelski agreed, pointing to San Jose's improved overall defense as a key to the victory. "For us, it's really committing to the d-side," he said. "I think we're doing some things right and still being aggressive."
"I think we executed our game plan better than they did," Erik Karlsson relayed after the win over the Bolts. "We knew it was going to be a tough game. [Tampa] was going to create their fair amount of scoring chances."
Karlsson was a key factor in San Jose being able to cool off Tampa Bay's hot offense. Both he and Brent Burns logged huge minutes with half the blue line sidelined with injury -- Karlsson played 29:15 minutes, Burns played 30:45 minutes -- while still managing to get on the scoreboard. Credit also has to be given to the Joakim Ryan, Tim Heed and the rookie Middleton for stepping in and helping the cause.
"It's hard to take three defensemen out of your lineup and survive," DeBoer said. "And that's a credit to the young guys that came in. I thought Middleton came in and gave us some good minutes. I thought Joakim Ryan played a good game and so did (Tim) Heed."
"The guys that have stepped in on the back end, they don't have an easy job," Pavelski said. "They work hard every day to be ready and they've been good team guys. It's good to see them get this opportunity on this kind of stage against a really good team."
They took full advantage of that opportunity, as the team managed to keep Kucherov -- who finished a minus-4 on the night -- off the scoreboard. The Bolts' offense maintained a good pace, but had trouble capitalizing on their scoring chances. And that league-leading power play went 0-for-2.
Now that the Sharks have played to this level, it's a matter of repeating it on a regular basis. Even against teams far down in the standings like the Kings and the Oilers -- who San Jose will host in a home back-to-back to start off the week.
"I think every game going forward here is going to be a test for us," Karlsson explained. "It's going to be up to us to have the consistency to be able to do the work we did today day in and day out. That's the hard part in this league -- you play so many games. Tonight, we were extremely excited to play a team like Tampa. And now we just have to bring that on Monday when we play LA."