Sharks lose 4-3 as Phoenix Coyotes clinch playoff berth, Thornton scores 1000th point with third period goal
San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan told his team Thursday on the ice in Phoenix that they might be playing with a little bit of fire. “We have not been in a one goal game for a long time. We have either been ahead successfully 4, 5 or 6 goals some nights… or we have been handed our lunch,” McLellan told KNBR 680AM. During the first two months of the Sharks turnaround that began in mid-January, the Sharks battled through 19 of 24 one goal games and earned an impressive 11-3-3 record in tight contests. Over the last 10 games, San Jose has won by 2 goals twice, 3 goals twice, five goals once and six goals once. The only close decisions came in a 3-2 win over Minnesota on March 17th, and shootout loss to Los Angeles on March 24th. Friday night in the opening salvo of a season ending home-at-home series with the Phoenix Coyotes, the Sharks were in a 1-goal contest for the first time in 2 and a half weeks. Despite a 2-goal rally in the third period, the Coyotes earned a 4-3 win on home ice to clinch only their second playoff berth in 8 years.
Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov may not be a part of the Vezina discussion this season, but he has quietly racked up a 36-19-10 record, .921SV%, 2.47GAA and 7 shutouts for a team whose status remains uncertain for the 2011-12. Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer has tried to negotiate a path through the public and special interest morass in Phoenix to buy the team, but sagging municipal bond sales and a potential court challenge could undermine yet another potential owner for the league owned franchise. Ilya Bryzgalov’s 3-year, $12.75M contract is up after this season, and he could be one of the most sought after #1 goaltenders in the offseason. On Friday night against the Sharks Bryzgalov was still in the business of stopping pucks for the Yotes, and business was good.
As the Sharks surpassed the Stars for first in the Pacific, and went on a 26-4-4 run to push the upper limit of the Western Conference, Phoenix had for the most part matched that blistering pace and remained in striking distance for the stretch run. Without a single 20-goal scorer, and with defenseman Kevin Yandle leading the team with 59 points, the Coyotes have leaned heavily on Bryzgalov to be a rock in goal. In the first period on Friday, he had to contend with the buzzing third line of Kyle Wellwood, Joe Pavelski and Torrey Mitchell. The three undersized forwards can mix it up and play on the rush, hold the puck on the stick to catch players out of position, or they can crash the crease. Kyle Wellwood created the best scoring chance of the period, forcing Kevin Yandle to turn the puck over in the neutral zone, then joining Torrey Mitchell for a 2-on-1 against defenseman Michal Rozsival as he came off the bench. Bryzgalov pushed hard right to left, and blocked Micthell’s one-timer up high.
After a failed clear by defenseman Douglas Murray lead to a Kyle Turris cross ice pass to Andrew Ebbet for a goal at 15:58, Wellwood, Pavelski and Mitchell nearly came back to tie the game with 4 seconds left in the period. Three Coyotes players, Fiddler, Stempniak and Pyatt switched off on Joe Pavelski in front of the net. One bodied him off position in front of the crease, the other checked his stick off the ice as a centering pass went through the crease, and the third delivered a shot after the whistle for good measure. Torrey Mitchell was able to get a stick on the pass that Pavelski missed, but his shot from the right side was swallowed up by Bryzgalov.
Details of the game are important in the final games of the regular season. In addition to working out a struggling penalty kill, the Sharks may also have to work on clearing plays in the defensive zone. Defenseman Niclas Wallin couldn’t clear the puck out of his zone, setting up Ed Jovanovski for a big slapshot from the point. The shot was tipped by Shane Doan in front, but former Shark Ray Whitney gained possession and fed Eric Belanger for a quick 1-timer. A spectacular save by Antti Niemi kept the game within 1. The save resulted in a 2-goal swing, as defenseman Ian White was able to slide to his left to create a shooting lane and pinball a shot through traffic that beat Bryzgalov. Phoenix answered less than three minutes later with a set play in the neutral zone that looked like it came out of the Sharks playbook. Stationary in the neutral zone with his back towards the net, Belanger dropped a pass to Shane Doan who had a head of steam. Doan gained space on Boyle on the right wing, then flung a pass back to Whitney who had gained inside position on Andrew Desjardins. Whitney buried the one timer for his 17th goal of the season, the 341st of his 19-year NHL career.
Whitney’s goal came after Jamal Mayers rang a shot off the post. Joe Thornton’s shot off the post, after a slick pass by Logan Couture, also lead to an odd man rush in the other direction. The puck hopped over Dan Boyle’s stick along the wall as he tried to keep the play in the offensive zone, as Belanger and Vrbata were sprung in the other direction. Douglas Murray tried to get in front of the play, but another crisp pass by Belanger found Vrbata’s stick and the back of the net. After taking a pair of first period penalties that gave Phoenix momentum early in the game, the Sharks took another holding call in the third that set up the Coyotes power play. 20 seconds into the penalty kill, Shane Doan buried a quick wrist shot from the slot with Korpikoski battling Demers for a screen in front.
The Sharks have the offensive depth necessary to mount a comeback with any combination of players on the ice, and they started to battle back midway through the third period. A heavy Douglas Murray point shot was deflected into the air by traffic, and Joe Thornton batted it out of the air for the 306th goal of his career. It was also his 1000th point in 994 NHL regular season games played. Thornton is only the 78th player in league history to reach that milestone. With less than 4 minutes remaining in regulation, Dany Heatley added his 26th goal of the season to make it 4-3. Heatley ripped a shot from the top of the slot that seemed to catch the defenseman and the goaltender on their back foot.
San Jose head coach Todd McLellan pulled Antti Niemi from the net with less than a minute left, and Ray Whitney narrowly missed the open net with 14 left on the clock. The Sharks quickly pushed the puck through the neutral zone. Brzygalov and Ray Whitney combined to deny shots by Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle, clinching a playoff berth in the process. “At the start of the year, your goal is to win the division or to finish in the top 8 to give yourself a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup,” Phoenix Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett told reporters after the game. “Sometimes that happens earlier than others, this time it didn’t happen until the second to last game of the year. We are still in there.”
[Update] Phoenix Coyotes feel relief after clinching playoff spot – Arizona Republic.
It wasn’t easy and it usually hasn’t been against the Sharks, who had beaten the Coyotes in the previous eight meetings. Despite amassing a 4-1 lead with goals courtesy Andrew Ebbett, Ray Whitney, Vrbata and Doan, a pair of third-period goals by the Sharks provided for an antsy final minutes. A last-second shot block by Whitney was a testament to the desperation the Coyotes exhibited against the Sharks.
[Update2] Setoguchi “cramped up” and could play in finale, Thornton’s thoughts on reaching the 1,000 mark – David Pollak’s Working the Corners blog.