While the San Jose Sharks have been a fixture in the NHL playoffs for more than a decade now—despite some infamous disappointments once there—two phenomena have been all too prevalent in their games in recent years: less-than-stellar opposing goaltenders looking like Vezina winners, and lack of fire in critical situations.
Perhaps nowhere were these more evident than in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year against the rival Anaheim Ducks.
Despite being peppered with shots, Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller made a name for himself starting ahead of former Conn Smythe Winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere and consistently frustrated the Sharks, almost single-handedly stealing Games 1 and 2 in San Jose. The Sharks’ collective response was less than impressive and by the time they showed any real measure of fire, they were already in too deep a hole to be able to recover.
They lost the series in six games, despite having claimed the franchise’s first President’s Trophy and accompanying No. 1 overall seed that season – albeit in less-than-dramatic fashion, limping to the end of the regular season and clinching the top seed due to a Boston loss. Thus Todd McLellan’s first season ended in a first round playoff loss, after Ron Wilson had been dismissed a year before, following his third consecutive defeat in the second round.
Thursday’s game against Montreal started much the same way for the Western Conference leaders. Despite seeing his team get outplayed for most of the first period, Carey Price seemed unbeatable in net for the Canadiens, keeping the Sharks off the scoreboard. At the other end of the ice, Evgeni Nabokov was strong when he needed to be, but let in a weak at goal on a slapper from the high slot by Brian Gionta at 10:20, following a Patrick Marleau turnover. Price stopped 15 shots while his defense managed to block 11 more and the visiting Canadiens led 1-0 at the first intermission.
The Sharks would show some spark early in the second period with alternate captain Joe Thornton in the penalty box, when Patrick Marleau scored short-handed by redirecting a shot by captain Rob Blake in the first minute of play at 00:53. The short-handed goal was the eighth for the Sharks and the fourth for Marleau on the year, putting him one behind the league-leading Marian Hossa of Chicago.
The 1-1 tie was short-lived, however, as the Sharks quickly allowed an all-too-familiar deflating goal when Scott Gomez was credited for a power play tally one second before Joe Thornton was set to step back on the ice. The puck redirected off the stick of Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray in front of the net off a shot by Scott Gomez from the corner and snuck through the five hole on Evgeni Nabokov at 2:06 with Brian Gionta screening in front. Gionta had set Gomez up on the wing with the entrance pass and earned his second point of the game with an assist.
The score remained 2-1 into the second intermission thanks to stellar goal-tending by Carey Price. Price fought off an extended 4-on-3 Sharks power play opportunity and survived a penalty shot from Dan Boyle resulting from a very odd circumstance.
Price lost his goalie stick on the penalty kill and Hal Gill picked it up to return it to him, but ended up tossing it in the direction of the puck on a shot by an on-rushing Sharks forward, leading to a penalty shot. Dan Boyle beat Carey Price soundly over the shoulder on his glove side on the penalty shot, but was dejected as the puck rang off the crossbar. Carey Price’s luck would continue on the ensuing continuation of the power play, as a Dany Heatley slap shot from the high slot rang off the left post less than a minute later.
Circumstances got more heated in third period at 1:56 following a breakaway by Scott Nichol and a third shot off the post. Trailing the play, Maxim Lapierre took an inarguably cheap cross check at Nichol’s back, forcing him awkwardly into the end boards and causing him to leave the game. The officials blatantly missed the initial call, and the only penalties resulted from the ensuing scrum after the play with former Canadien Jay Leach and former Shark Travis Moen taking offsetting roughing minors. Concern arose in the crowd at the lack of clear response to Maxim Lapierre, but the Sharks would eventually muster the best kind of answer.
Following a Roman Hamrlik hooking penalty at 11:18, the Sharks finally broke through on the power play after they had been shut down on their first three attempts in the game. Dany Heatley atoned for his earlier post shot by redirecting a Dan Boyle shot from the right circle. The puck tumbled between the pads of Carey Price while Heatley was camped in front of the crease. The power play goal at 12:32 tied the game for San Jose and brought Heatley’s team-leading power play goal total to 15 (33 total goals).
The Sharks thoroughly dominated play for the remainder of the game, concentrating possession in the Montreal zone and generating strings of chances. Manny Malhotra became the hero at 15:05 as he cleanly beat Carey Price with a one-timer from the slot on a strong setup from Kent Huskins, notching his tenth goal of the season. HP Pavilion erupted as the Sharks enjoyed their first lead since Feb. 11. The Sharks fended off the last rush from Montreal over the closing five minutes to win the game in regulation 3-2.
This was an important win for the Sharks, as it brought them to 91 points on the year, two clear of the Chicago Blackhawks (though the Blackhawks still have one game in hand). But perhaps what the Sharks have shown coming out of the Olympic break could give long-suffering Bay Area hockey fans a glimmer of hope that maybe this year will be different. Coupled with their near-incredible comeback Tuesday night against New Jersey, the Sharks have shown a will and resolve in the last two games which have been missing on previous squads.
With the roster set going toward the playoffs, it seems that the Sharks may finally have that intangible grit to be a force come April, May and June. I’m not one for making wild predictions, but at least these games have suggested some positive progress compared to previous years. Cohesion, communication, and giveaways remain the primary issues for this team, and Todd McLellan will need to correct these if he hopes to advance very far come April. Still, Sharks fans seemingly have more reason than ever before to be optimistic headed toward the playoffs. GO SHARKS!