COLUMBUS, Ohio — The elusive first win without Joe Thornton is in the bank.
The Sharks (27-16-8) finally got rewarded for their strong play without their emotional leader Friday, ending a season-high four-game losing streak in Columbus.
The win allowed the Sharks to break a tie with the Anaheim Ducks and move into sole possession of second place in the Pacific Division with 62 points.
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Here’s what we learned as the Sharks picked up a 3-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets (27-20-4).
1. The Sharks know the key ingredients to surviving without Thornton.
The Sharks are showing that the ingredients they’ll need to survive without Thornton are embedded in their DNA.
They put them on display in putting up 42 shots against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday and while earning a point in a seven-round shootout against the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday.
In the third game of a five-game trip, the Sharks work ethic, tenacity and resilience finally translated into something tangible: a win and two key points in the Pacific Division standings.
“That’s this group’s identity. There’s no quit in them. They don’t get down. They show up and they work,” head coach Pete DeBoer said. “We haven’t gotten the results lately, but there’s been no discouragement.”
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After surrendering the second-highest number of goals (46) in the month of January, the team returned to playing Sharks hockey in Friday’s win, holding the Blue Jackets to 29 shots, 15 through two periods, and shutting the door with another solid goaltending performance from Martin Jones.
“I love the way we work,” Jones said. “We hunt pucks down on the forecheck as hard as anybody. It doesn’t always go our way, but I don’t think it’s very often that you can fault our effort. That’s one thing I really appreciate about this group.”
Jones made 28 saves while starting his third game in four nights after missing the Sharks last four games games before All-Star weekend with a lower-body injury.
On Wednesday, DeBoer guaranteed that the Sharks No. 1 goalie will bring his best stuff in the second half, and so far, Jones is backing up his coach’s promise.
With 71 saves on 73 shots in his last two games, Jones is looking very much like the goalie who posted a .930 save percentage in his first 17 appearances before suffering an injury on Nov. 25.
2. The Sharks power play isn’t skipping a beat without Thornton.
It’s goes without saying that Kevin Labanc is being asked to fill Jumbo-sized shoes by taking Thornton’s place on the Sharks top power play unit.
His approach to the assignment: listen to the veterans and follow their lead.
Despite the absence of the game’s most-creative passer, the Sharks power play continues to click, going 4 for 11 (36.4 percent) in four games without Thornton.
The power play went 2 for 3 Friday as Logan Couture scored his team-leading 22nd goal of the season with the extra man at 5:07 of the first and Labanc scored his second goal in as many games by capitalizing on a 5-on-3 at 10:20 of the second.
What kind of advice does Labanc get from the likes of Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns on the top power play unit.
“Don’t be afraid,” Labanc said.
He clearly isn’t.
And the 22-year-old is the right fit for the top unit with his rocket-hard shot, ability to hang onto the puck and create space for his teammates. His blast into the top shelf from the slot Friday was his 12th power play point of the season.
The other secret to the power play’s success without Thornton isn’t exactly a secret: the group features one of the league’s best-shooting defensemen in Burns, its best-shot deflectors in Pavelski and all-around players in Couture.
“We’ve got skilled players,” Couture said. “Obviously, you can’t replicate one of the best passers of this generation, but other guys can go out there and put pucks toward the net and that’s how we’re scoring our goals.”
Marc-Edouard Vlasic scored the Sharks third goal in five-on-five play at 6:51 of the third, his ninth of the season, matching a career high set in 2014-15.
3. Sharks survive a major scare.
Sharks territory held its breath when Couture left the game after taking a puck to the mouth area with 7:13 left in the third.
Couture missed the past seven games of the 2016-17 season after getting hit in the mouth by a redirected shot, causing damage to all of his teeth.
Fortunately, Couture returned for the game’s final 3:30 Friday.
“Nothing came out,” Couture said, referring to his teeth. “But I’ll probably end up having to do (some dental work) when we get back to San Jose.”
Couture’s upper lip was visibly swollen after the game, and he had a cut below his left nostril.
“It was definitely worrisome,” Labanc said. “We have Jumbo out for now, and to see another top guy (go out), that would have hurt.”