SAN JOSE, Calif. – From the moment Patrick Marleau’s goal skittered into the net, the comeback seemed as inevitable as the collapse.
The San Jose Sharks finally found a weakness in the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were crushed under the burden of a miserable season that keeps getting worse.
Joe Pavelski tipped home the go-ahead goal with 9:39 to play, and the Sharks roared back from a two-goal deficit in the third period for their seventh win in eight games, 3-2 over the miserable Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
For two periods, Toronto seemed headed for an improbable road victory that could assuage several months of misery for the Leafs, which has the NHL’s third-lowest point total. But after Marleau ended former teammate Vesa Toskala’s shutout bid with a deflected power-play goal, the Maple Leafs sagged – and the emboldened Sharks struck two more times.
“Tosk was playing unbelievable, (but) going into the third period with a power play was huge for us as long as we got the job done, and we did,” coach Ron Wilson said. “Once we broke the ice, we felt better and they felt worse, and you could see the difference from that point on. We were all over them, they took some penalties, and the next thing you know, it’s lights out.”
Craig Rivet tied it during a two-man advantage with 11:29 left, and Pavelski adroitly redirected Jonathan Cheechoo’s shot for the winner as the Sharks scored three times in less than 10 minutes.
Toronto has won just two of its 13 games over the last four weeks, and its ravenous fan base all but expects the imminent departure of coach Paul Maurice or general manager John Ferguson – perhaps both. Thousands of Leafs fans at the Shark Tank watched their much-loved losers’ third-period collapse in dismay.
Rivet, who spent his entire career in high-pressure Montreal before last spring, recognized the misery on the Toronto players’ faces.
“There’s a few teams in this league that when they get in a downward spiral, it’s an extremely tough situation to get out of,” Rivet said. “There’s a lot of pressure coming from all different areas. Down here, when we lose one or two games, it’s no big deal. We just go to the rink the next day, and we work hard to get out of it. There’s no focus on the negatives. … I know what they’re going through.”
Joe Thornton had two assists and Evgeni Nabokov made 23 saves for the first-place Sharks, who have the NHL’s third-highest point total behind Detroit and Ottawa.
Nik Antropov and Pavel Kubina scored for the Maple Leafs, who wasted two outstanding periods against an elite team in their fifth consecutive loss.
“They played their guts out – three games in four nights,” Maurice said. “With all the stuff they’re dealing with and the weight … that’s hanging on them, they came out and played hard. They deserved a better fate.”
Though several Maple Leafs executives attended the game, the club made no announcements before hopping on their flight back to Toronto.
“I know as much as you guys,” said captain Mats Sundin, who also wasn’t informed when the club abruptly cancelled practice on Friday in Los Angeles.
Nabokov and Toskala, who made 32 saves, rose through the Sharks’ farm system together and shared the starting job in San Jose for much of the last three seasons until the club shipped Toskala to Toronto last summer. Though Toskala was sad to leave California, he wanted to be a full-time starter – as did Nabokov, who has started every game for the Sharks this season.
“Good teams like San Jose will come back if you give them a chance,” Toskala said. “It’s pretty frustrating. We need points badly so we can get back in the playoff race.”
Toskala played in all three losses on the Leafs’ California road trip despite aggravating his injured groin. He made several stunning saves against the Sharks, but Nabokov picked up his NHL-leading 25th victory to match his win total from last season, when he alternated starts with Toskala.
Despite winning three straight games in San Jose, the Sharks still have one of the NHL’s worst home records at 9-9-4. San Jose’s next two games are on the road, where the Sharks are the league’s best team with 10 consecutive victories.
Wins at Anaheim and Phoenix over the next three days would tie Detroit’s NHL record of 12 straight on the road.
Notes: Since the lockout ended in 2005, San Jose has the Western Conference’s second-best record against the East at 18-5-0, while Toronto has the East’s worst mark against the West at 8-19-0. … Justin Pogge, the Maple Leafs’ talented goaltending prospect, was recalled from the minors Friday, but didn’t suit up for Toronto. Andrew Raycroft served as Toskala’s backup. … C Dominic Moore played sparingly for Toronto in his first game since the Leafs claimed him off waivers from Minnesota on Friday.