Erratic Sharks stumble sideways on road trip

The Sharks’ 2014-2015 campaign has gotten off to an uneven start, epitomized by their seven-game road trip that seemingly had it all, from disappointment to ecstasy, exuberance to despair.

It began with a thriller in Dallas and ended with a clunker in Buffalo. In between, they beat the best team in the Eastern Conference, lost to the two worst team in the league, and had a rookie goaltender notch a 45-save shutout in his NHL debut.

The road trip got off to an adventurous start with the Sharks coming back from a two-goal deficit to defeat the Stars 5-3 on Nov. 8.

Down 3-1 in the second period thanks to a Tyler Seguin hat trick, San Jose scored four unanswered goals in the third.

Patrick Marleau slid home a loose rebound on the power play to cut the lead to one, then a pair of Brent Burns goals — the first on a two-on-one break, and the second off a fortuitous bounce after pressure by the Sharks — put San Jose in front.

The game ended with controversy as Sharks’ goaltender Alex Stalock was checked hard by the Stars’ Antoine Roussel while trying to bat the puck out of the zone, leading to a melee in the corner.

Roussel then took a cheap shot at Justin Braun, punching him in the face while the referee was restraining Braun. Roussel was fined the maximum $5,376.34 for the incident.

Whatever momentum the Sharks took out of the emotional win in Dallas was quickly swept out in the Windy City. The Sharks found themselves down 3-0 the next night to the Blackhawks just six minutes in as Chicago dominated the first period, creating lanes and firing 20 shots at Antti Niemi.

The Sharks battled back to make it a 3-2 deficit on two goals by Joe Pavelski, and had a glorious chance to tie the game up in the second period, but Barclay Goodrow was denied by Blackhawks’ goaltender Corey Crawford on a breakaway.

Crawford stood tall in the third as well, and it was the Blackhawks who received an insurance goal from Bryan Bickell late in the third to pull away with a 5-2 win.

The defeat to the Blackhawks may have been deemed a “schedule loss” because of the back-to-back games against tough opponents, but there was no excuse for the Sharks to fall flat in Florida to the Panthers on Veterans’ Day.

Against a Panthers squad that had allowed 10 goals in its past 10 games, the Sharks could only muster one goal — Joe Thornton scoring in garbage time — on 26 shots, while the Panthers’ offense came to life. Ten different Panthers in a 4-1 win.

Said head coach Todd McLellan after the game:

“We didn’t execute at all. We didn’t put two passes together. So, any time we did win battles for the puck and have an opportunity to get up ice, maybe made the first one, but we sure didn’t make the second one.

To add insult to injury, Stalock was sent home and placed on injured reserve with a lower body injury before the game, and his injury may have been aggravated by the Roussel incident in Dallas. Troy Grosenick was called up from Worcester to back up Niemi for the rest of the road trip.

Needing a win, the Sharks rather improbably restored momentum in their favor with a 2-1 win over the Lightning — the best team in the Eastern Conference — two nights later.

In what might have been their best all-around game of the season thus far, the Sharks made crisp passes on offense, clamped down on defense, and Niemi was clutch down the stretch.

Goals by Joe Thornton and Tyler Kennedy put the Sharks up 2-0 heading into the third, but the Lightning cut the lead in half on a Steven Stamkos deflection in front midway through the final period. The Sharks bent but didn’t break as Niemi stonewalled the Lightning to the tune of 32 saves, 15 of them coming in the third.

But yet again, the Sharks were unable to capitalize on the momentum off a big win, as they fell flat in a 2-1 loss to the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Saturday.

Despite peppering Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky with 37 shots and having a four-minute power play late in the third period, the Sharks were unable to net the tying goal in the third period.

On a road trip that underwent so many twists and turns, of course the Sharks bounced back behind rookie Troy Groesnick, who made his first NHL start in Carolina the following evening and stopped all 45 shots from the Hurricanes in a 2-0 shutout.

In a game that the Hurricanes dominated, peppering the Sharks with shots and pressure, Groesnick stood tall. His 45 saves in a debut shutout were the most in NHL history since the 1979-1980 season.

Tomas Hertl‘s goal late in the first period proved to be the game-winner, and Thornton’s empty-netter with seven seconds on the clock sealed the momentous evening for Groesnick.

In a rather surprising turn, Groesnick started the Sharks’ next game as well in Buffalo to wrap up the road trip. This time, it didn’t go as well.

The Sharks outshot the Sabres 30-14, but it was Buffalo that won 4-1, taking advantage of its few scoring opportunities. San Jose has not won in Buffalo in eight games and haven’t beaten the since 2010.

So ends a whirlwind, unpredictable seven-game road trip for the Sharks in which they go 3-4. Not bad considering they played their first 16 of 21 games away from home, an NHL record, but overall rather disheartening knowing they left quite a few attainable points on the table.