ANAHEIM -- Kiss those hopes for a late surge to the top of the Pacific Division goodbye.
The Sharks came up short Wednesday night, dropping a 5-2 decision to an Anaheim Ducks team they had hoped to leapfrog into first place in the final week of the regular season. With second place guaranteed, San Jose knows it will face the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs -- the third time in four years that the California rivals will go head-to-head in the postseason.
"It would have been great," Joe Thornton said of a division title. "But we're in the playoffs, we know who we're going to play, and it's going to be a heck of a first round. Can't wait."
In a game where the Sharks needed strong goaltending, they didn't get it as Antti Niemi gave up three goals on 19 shots before being yanked midway through the game.
And afterward, coach Todd McLellan stopped short of backing Niemi as his top netminder in the postseason when asked if the veteran was "his guy" going into the playoffs.
"Nemo's one of our guys," he responded.
Forward Patrick Maroon scored twice for the Ducks, who got single goals from Corey Perry, Matt Beleskey and Jakob Silfverberg, the latter into an empty net. Jason Demers and Logan Couture were the Sharks to beat Anaheim rookie John Gibson, who made 36 saves in earning his second NHL win in two starts.
Both sides talked of this game having a near-playoff atmosphere, and neither team showed up tentative. There were close calls and hard hits at both ends of the ice early on, but the game was scoreless until the final two minutes of the first period.
The Sharks took advantage of the fact Anaheim was expecting an icing call after Gibson raised his glove to signal a whistle was coming. But officials didn't see it the same way, and Joe Pavelski quickly got the puck to Demers, who beat the Ducks netminder on the far side.
Niemi's first questionable goal came in the final seconds of the first period, as Perry took the puck along the left sideboards, drove past Justin Braun and managed to slide the puck through Niemi's pads at 19:57 to tie it at 1-1.
The Ducks took a 2-1 lead at 3:32 of the second period when Maroon retrieved the puck for a wraparound before Niemi could move laterally from post to post. The Sharks were able to tie the game a little less than four minutes later, however, when Couture took advantage of a turnover and fired a perfectly placed shot that beat Gibson on the short side.
Maroon's second goal at 9:35 was the one that drove Niemi from the game. The Sharks netminder had a clear view of the 22-foot shot from just inside the left faceoff circle, but the puck hit his glove and trickled across the line to make it a 3-2 game. Exit Niemi, enter backup Alex Stalock.
"The first one, he would love to have back, I'm sure," McLellan said. "I was concerned coming out in the second that that would put us back on our heels, but we responded well. Then they got the second one, and we still responded."
The team's reaction was different after Anaheim regained the lead.
"You could feel the bench getting a little deflated, so we needed to do something at that point," McLellan said. "We made the change, and I thought we responded well again. Just not enough."
Stalock had little chance on a shot by Beleskey after he toe-dragged the puck around Brent Burns, who had dropped to the ice hoping to block a shot.
The Sharks weren't ready to hang their failed attempt to win the Pacific on one game, however.
"You can look at it tonight, you can look at something we did three, four, five games ago or you can go back as far as you want to," Dan Boyle said. "We still like our team. We like our chances going into these playoffs."
at Sharks (49-22-9),
7 p.m. NBCSN, CSN Plus