(Just so we are clear, the last game against the Flames never happened. It isn't real. It's just a myth, like the Loch Ness Monster or New Zealand. Let us never speak of the game-that-wasn't again, agreed?)
Since Todd McLellan took over as coach for the 08-09 season, the Sharks have been an offense-first team. Out went Ron Wilson's conservative defensive play and in came the high-powered "shoot first and play defense later" attitude that was to be expected of the Red Wings' offensive coordinator. Since the Sharks have been a front-loaded team for years, it seemed like a good fit, and the team has responded by placing 7th in the league in goals per game in 08-09 and 4th last season.
The Sharks shoot the puck a lot and play with four forwards on the power play. They encourage defensemen to jump up into the play, even pushing more stay-at-home guys like Marc-Edouard Vlasic to do so. Sometimes this works out really well, and guys like Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle look amazing. Other times this strategy burns the Sharks something awful. I might even say that it burns them like Flames, but we agreed we aren't going to talk about that.
Do you know who is dead last in the NHL in plus-minus*? Joe Thornton. He's minus nine. And he's managing that even with a respectable seven points in seven games. In fact, if you look at the bottom 50 players in the NHL in terms of plus-minus you see a lot of Sharks: Patrick Marleau, -7. Dan Boyle, -6. Joe Pavelski, -5. This team is paying the price for sloppy defensive play, not just by specific players, but basically the whole roster. The four-forward power play is producing results offensively, but it's also leading to embarrassing short-handed goals against. Couple that with high-risk defensive pinches at even strength and brain-dead mistakes by guys that are usually solid (What is wrong with Douglas Murray?) and you have a recipe for disaster, like the one that didn't happen in Calgary.
Goaltending should not be the Sharks' primary concern right now. Sure, Antti Niemi has looked like Herman from The Simpsons out there at times, but he also hasn't been getting the bare-minimum of defensive support and consistency that should be expected from a team that wants to do something significant this year. Antero Niittymaki has been the better goalie, and should get the start tonight if there is any justice in the world, but he's not a miracle worker.
Before the season Sharks fans had a couple of areas of concern when it came to defense. Their names were Kent Huskins and Niclas Wallin. So far this season, however, it hasn't been these guys we've had to worry about: it has been a team-wide issue.
We don't need to panic, of course. We expect more from players like Thornton, Boyle, and Murray because we have SEEN them play much better than this. They're obviously capable of more consistent and responsible defensive play, and the sooner we see that from them the sooner the Sharks will start stringing together wins.
Prediction: The Sharks take advantage of a team that is struggling even more than they are, and win 5 - 2. We get EVEN STRENGTH goals from Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau, Setoguchi, and Vlasic.
* = source checked Tuesday night.