SAN JOSE -- For the bulk of this season, the Sharks have struggled on offense. What success they have had has been credited to solid goaltending and defense.
Not Saturday. In a rare matinee at HP Pavilion, the Sharks did manage to score three regulation goals for the first time in 13 games. But it was shaky goaltending that prompted coach Todd McLellan to yank Antti Niemi for the first time all season and led to a 4-3 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues.
"You can walk in that locker room and everybody will tell you how important Nemo is to our team," McLellan said. "He's been our most valuable player to this point, but tonight he struggled a little bit, and, unfortunately, we couldn't bail him out."
A deflection by Blues forward Patrik Berglund at 1:12 of overtime that beat Alex Stalock -- called up Friday from Worcester to replace the injured Thomas Greiss -- cost San Jose an extra point in the standings. But it was a natural hat trick by St. Louis forward Vladimir Sobotka that doomed the Sharks.
What made it even more galling was that San Jose led 3-1 going into the third period on goals by Logan Couture, Scott Gomez and Matt Irwin.
"You're up 3-1 going into the third, it's time to just step on their throat, and it's this game over," captain Joe Thornton said. "It's one of those games where you just let it slip, and it can't happen."
McLellan called it "a tough pill to swallow."
Sobotka's second and third goals came 80 seconds apart early in the third period and from similar spots near the right faceoff circle. At 4:18, Niemi appeared to be partly screened by defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic. At 5:38, the Sharks netminder did get a piece of the puck, but it trickled into the net behind him.
"The first, I picked the puck up late. The last one, I'm not sure -- just over the pad, hit the glove and leaked through," Niemi said.
McLellan said he knew something had to be done after Sobotka tied the game.
"I just thought he was off his angle two goals in a row," the coach said. "You could feel our team sag at that point, and we needed to do something. We could pull the goalie, we could call a timeout. We pulled the goalie."
McLellan said the fact it was Stalock, not Greiss, coming into the game at that point wasn't an issue because in Stalock's only other NHL appearance, he made nine saves in relief to earn the win as the Sharks came back to beat Phoenix 5-3 on Feb. 1, 2011.
"It's always easier the second time around," Stalock said. "It was a little smoother, definitely, and the nerves weren't going as much."
Stalock stopped the five shots he faced in the third period, including a tough one by Blues forward Chris Potter capping an odd-man rush. In overtime, he said he acknowledged he didn't have much of a chance on the game-winner when Berglund got his stick on a puck fired by Barret Jackman.
"Initially, it was a clear shot to the net," Stalock said, "and then Berglund got a piece of it and tipped it down."
St. Louis took a 1-0 lead at 4:51 of the first period when Sobotka beat Justin Braun to the rebound of a shot by Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and beat Niemi.
But at 15:19 of the same period, the Sharks evened it up when Tommy Wingels -- playing his first game since a Feb. 23 injury in Dallas -- drove hard down the right side and threw the puck at Blues goalie Jake Allen. The rebound bounced off the skate of Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo right to Couture, who did not miss the open net for his ninth goal.
In the second period, the Sharks took their two-goal lead on a rare third-line goal when James Sheppard's shot bounced around the crease and ended up on the stick of Gomez, who scored his second of the season and second in three games at 7:45. The margin doubled with San Jose on the power play at 16:31 when rookie defenseman Irwin's shot beat Allen.
While San Jose didn't acknowledge playing more cautiously entering the third period, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said he thought the Sharks "seemed to be on their heels, and they seemed nervous for most of the third period. We just kept coming."
"I'd have loved to see them finish 48-0. We're done playing against them," McLellan said. "I would have loved to see them run it out for the rest of the year and take points away from people who are competing at our level."