Sharks excite in win over Edmonton to claim first place

In recent history, the Sharks and Oilers have been on different trajectories, with the former a perennial championship contender and the latter a fledgling bottom-feeder.

Coming into Friday night’s contest in San Jose, though, the two teams were tied for first in the Pacific Division with 41 points, with former Sharks’ head coach Todd McLellan eyeing a statement victory for an up-and-coming squad against his former club.

And the intensity was ratcheted up to levels rarely seen in previous matchups. There were hard hits and fights, consistent “oohs and aahs” from the crowd, and an exciting finish that may have started a budding rivalry with four more tilts remaining this season.

For now, it’s the Sharks who can lay claim to being the best team in the Pacific, overcoming a scrappy Oilers team in a 3-2 win on an overtime goal by Kevin Labanc, who continued his stellar start to his debut season with his second goal of the game, picking the top corner on Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot from in close.

Labanc was set up by Logan Couture, who corralled the puck in the corner and a wide-open Labanc right in front of the goal.

Couture described the play:

“I turned around, took a peak out of the corner of my eye and saw there were two guys who left the zone. [Labanc] was yelling for the puck and I found him all the alone.”

As soon as he had the puck, Labanc knew exactly where to aim:

“I saw the goalie’s glove was a little bit down. I knew I was going to shoot [up high].”

The Couture-Labanc combo ended up being the difference, as the duo also paired up for a big third period goal that temporarily gave the Sharks the lead. On a 2-on-1, Labanc finished off a feed from Couture after No. 39 grabbed the puck in the neutral zone and made a nifty move to create the odd-man rush. And Labanc has been nourishing the chance to jump from playing in the AHL to being line mates with a star talent in Couture:

“He’s an unbelievable player. It’s a good learning curve for me, playing with him.”

And likewise, Labanc has provided the Sharks with a spark, with six goals in 21 games.

Couture said:

“For a team that’s struggling to score right, he’s a guy who’s consistently creating chances and scoring goals for us. He’s done a tremendous job.”

Head coach Pete DeBoer said he’s not quite ready to proclaim Labanc’s arrival yet, but that the youngster has gotten his attention:

“Every time he plays, he impresses and you gain more and more trust in his ability and what he can do. He’s got some special talents.”

The Sharks led 1-0 heading into the third period, but allowed the game-tying goal to Connor McDavid six minutes in on a wrist shot that careened off both Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun and past Martin Jones.

Fluky as it was, the goal had to be frustrating for DeBoer’s team, which had more than twice as many shots as the Oilers at that point and failed to convert on a four-minute power play in the second period.

McDavid, however, had another answer after Labanc converted on the 2-on-1 to give the Sharks a 2-1 lead. The phenom found Patrick Maroon in the offensive zone for another equalizer, this one a wrister that Jones might want to have back.

The Sharks’ consensus was that they did a decent job of limiting McDavid’s potency, but they could only do so much. Jones said:

“That’s what he does. He’s fast, he creates chances, uses his speed well.”

Defensively, the Sharks clamped down on McDavid and the Oilers’ power play. They killed off all six of Edmonton’s man advantages, neutralizing the Oilers’ youthful attack. San Jose, in fact, held Edmonton to just nine shots through two periods despite the Oilers spending nearly eight minutes with one more player on the ice. They also denied the Oilers on two power plays late in regulation that could’ve decided the game.

Head coach Pete DeBoer said the Sharks’ penalty kill was the difference in the game:

“I thought those guys hopped over the boards aggressive, took away a lot of time and space.”

From the start, the young Edmonton team looked to rattle the experienced Sharks. They outhit the San Jose and instigated fights, trying to force the issue on the road.

Brenden Dillon, who fought Matt Hendricks in the first period, said it was what he expected:

“Guys are finishing their checks, taking it hard to the net. Everyone top to bottom is chipping in and sticking up for each other.”

Up until the third, it was Sharks’ captain Joe Pavelski who provided the only punch of the game that mattered. Thirty-one seconds into the second period — with the Sharks on a power play — Pavelski took a feed from Brent Burns at the left circle and buried a one-timer past the right shoulder of Talbot to give the Sharks a 1-0 lead.

The Sharks had twice as many shots as the Oilers in a fast-paced but scoreless first period. San Jose killed off two Edmonton power plays, and had the best chance of the period on a shorthanded opportunity by Mikkel Boedker, who was denied on a breakaway on an outstanding glove save by Talbot.

Minutes later, fresh off a penalty kill, the Sharks had another chance off a 2-on-1 by Patrick Marleau and Vlasic, but Vlasic swung and missed at the rebound after Marleau’s shot forced Talbot to make a save that opened up the left side of the net.

The Sharks will head into the holiday break tenuously in first place in the Pacific. But they know that instead of having to look way down in the standings for  the Oilers, the team from Edmonton is right on their heels.

DeBoer, though, didn’t seem too convinced when asked if the four remaining games between the two teams this season would be this close. He thought the Sharks could’ve been up by a couple of goals had it not been for Talbot, who made 28 saves and denied more than a few scoring chances.

But they came out with the deserved win in the end, which DeBoer can relish along with first place.

“It’ll be nice to put your feet up for a couple of days in first place because for how we’ve played so far, we belong there.”