The pictured San Jose Sharks were especially instrumental in weekend wins that got them to first place in the Pacific Division 21 games into the 2015-16 NHL season Sunday, Nov. 22. A rare win over the Columbus Blue Jackets started less than 19 hours after finishing a win over the Pittsburgh Penguins and completed a six-game sweep through the Eastern Conference.
Granted, the Penguins and Detroit Red Wings were the only teams on this road trip to currently project to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs. Moreover, the Sharks have had the number of both those teams for years.
Still, winning a pair of back-to-back games put San Jose in first place in the Pacific Division one quarter of the way through the 2015-16 NHL season. Moreover, beating a Columbus team that had not only won eight of its last 13 but has dominated the head-to-head competition in the last nine games, earning seven regulation wins with a combined score of 19-30.
Blue-line injuries appeared to do the Blue Jackets in to some degree: Fedor Tyutin and Cody Goloubef were both out and the team gave up five goals, albeit one on an empty net. At the same time, the Sharks are still settling on a second center in Logan Couture’s absence for most of the 2015-16 NHL season thus far and are playing both Micheal Haley and Mike Brown on the fourth line thanks to also missing Ben Smith (probably from a concussion) and Raffi Torres (suspension).
The most impressive thing for San Jose was not only getting six wins in 11 days three time zones away from its Pacific Coast home, but having enough gas at the end of the trip for a comeback: Columbus took a 3-1 lead 83 seconds into the third period when Cam Atkinson snapped the rebound of Nick Foligno’s shot past Alex Stalock.
It took just under six minutes to respond: Joe Thornton won an offensive zone faceoff, Marc-Edouard Vlasic fed Justin Braun and Joe Pavelski deflected home the shot. Just over five minutes later, Tommy Wingels drew a third penalty on Dalton Prout (one being a fight) that gave the Sharks another chance to get on track on the power play.
San Jose has historically had the most deadly top unit in the league, but has been at or near the bottom for almost the entire 2015-16 NHL season. This one looked to regain old form: Pavelski won the faceoff, Marleau got the puck to Joel Ward for a cross-ice feed that Brent Burns one-timed home before Bobrovsky could recover.
Just 1:50 later, Brenden Dillon got the game-winning goal from Chris Tierney and Joe Pavelski stripped the Blue Jackets to bury an empty-net goal to put the game away. The Sharks had given up two goals in under two minutes earlier on scores by Ryan Johansen and Boone Jenner at 5:30 and 6:48 of the second period. Marleau scored the first goal on a puck battle over Joonas Donskoi’s rebound.
The night before closing this strong, San Jose continued its dominance over the state of Pennsylvania (17 wins in its last 18 games against the Philadelphia Flyers and 17 of 22 against Pittsburgh) by gaining, regaining and maintaining a lead for 47:38 of the game. Ironically, the best team on the Eastern Conference road trip was the most decisively beaten.
The Sharks were already in the lead before eight minutes had passed: Marleau got his 1000th career point after wining the faceoff when Ward put a shot off the right pad of Marc-Andre Fleury for Burns to put home. That lead held until Pavelski took a double-minor high-sticking penalty in the first seven minutes of the second period and allowed the Penguins to draw even.
Sidney Crosby got the puck to Patric Hornqvist for a shot that Martin Jones stopped but left for an uncovered Phil Kessel to clean up one second before the first penalty was over. However, San Jose killed the remaining two minutes and took the lead back 4:28 later when Burns scored from former Pittsburgh blue-liner Paul Martin to bring Marleau another secondary assist.
Martin scored his first goal of the 2015-16 NHL season from Donskoi to salt the game away early in the third. That enabled the Sharks to go for six regulation/overtime wins in the six-game trip to climb half a game ahead of the Los Angeles Kings for first place in the Pacific Division.
When they started the trip, they were not even sitting inside the Stanley Cup playoffs. That is a pretty big shift, and that offers reasons for San Jose to give thanks at this time of year.