Thursday, January 15, 2009

Round 3 of Sharks vs. Flames has a playoff feel to it

Playoff hockey in January?

That’s the way it looked to me from high above the rink at the Shark Tank, and that’s the way it felt for those on the ice Thursday night in Round 3 between the Sharks and Calgary Flames.

For the first time all season, the Sharks lost a home game in regulation, falling 3-2 to a Calgary team they beat in the first round of the playoffs last season. They’re now 20-1-2 at home, but the Sharks certainly didn’t go down quietly.

“I think it was a great hockey game,” said Sharks center Joe Thornton, who scored one goal and came within an eyelash of scoring another. “It was a playoff type atmosphere.”

As for the Sharks suffering their first home loss in regulation, Thornton just shrugged it off, saying, “It was bound to happen.” His thoughts were clearly centered more on the emotional game he had just played against a tough and sometimes bitter rival than on the end of the streak.

“Who knows? We’ll probably meet each other in the playoffs,” Thornton said.

That thought certainly doesn’t worry him.

“I thought we were more physical than them. I thought we were quicker than them,” Thornton said. “I think we stack up pretty good against them.”

Thornton’s probably right. Then again, the Sharks have lost two straight to the Flames, including a 5-2 thrashing at Calgary on Jan. 6, a payback for a 6-1 Sharks victory in San Jose on Nov. 13.

The final three-goal margin in Calgary doesn’t come close to telling you the true story of that butt kicking. Calgary led 4-0 early in the second period. Sharks coach Todd McLellan pulled goalie Evgeni Nabokov and replaced him with Brian Boucher. At that point, he might as well have put Bobby Boucher into the game.

This will tell you exactly what McLellan thought about the way his team played that night. Instead of giving his players a practice-free day, as planned, he scheduled a workout for early the next morning in Calgary before the Sharks traveled to Edmonton.

“The effort (tonight) when you compare it to what we had in Calgary was much better,” McLellan said.”

Thornton’s effort, in particular, stood out.

“Joe was competitive,” McLellan said. “I liked the fire he had in him. I thought it rubbed off on some of his linemates.”

Thornton is a pass-first center, but on Thursday night against Calgary he took matters into his own hands more often than usual.

Thornton put the Sharks ahead 2-1 at 6:57 of the second period, ripping a shot past Miikka Kiprusoff. He took the puck along the right boards, glided to his left and snapped a shot that beat the former Shark goalie on his glove side, just inside the post. It was the type of effortless, powerful offense that makes you wonder why Thornton doesn’t shoot more often.

Calgary wasted little time before answering. Just eight seconds into a power play, Daymond Langkow redirected a shot from Michael Cammalleri past Evegeni Nabokov with 10:25 still left in the second.

Thornton nearly put the Sharks back ahead on a power play with under nine minutes left to play. He rocketed a shot that hit the left post then ricocheted off the right post and out of the crease. The Sharks came away empty on that power play, as well as their four others.

“That’s the breaks,” Thornton said. “Another inch one way and it goes in. Another inch the other way and it misses the net.”

Minutes later, another break went Calgary’s way. Dion Phaneuf’s shot from the right circle deflected off Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s stick and past Nabokov at 16:03 of the third.

“I just don’t like losing to Calgary,” said Sharks forward Ryane Clowe, who scored the game’s first goal. “I guess we can’t complain too much about the effort. We played physical. We played hard.

“It was a good test for us. That was probably one of the most physical games we’ve had this year. … It’s exciting. You push and they push back. You push again.”

Just like in the playoffs.

For most of the game, the Sharks were pushing back without one of their best players, defenseman Rob Blake. Late in the first period, a Calgary shot bounced off his stick and hit him in the face. He left the Shark Tank and went to the hospital for treatment. No word yet on the extent of his injury.

The Sharks don’t have much time to stress about their loss to Calgary. Detroit, the defending Stanley Cup champion, comes to town Saturday. The Red Wings beat the Sharks 6-0 in Detroit last month and lost to the Sharks 4-2 in San Jose in October.

Thursday night’s game, McLellan said, was good preparation for what’s to come Saturday night.

“This had playoff intensity. You could feel it on the bench. You could feel it in the building,” he said.

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