There could have been so many excuses; and in previous years, there probably would have been.
Thursday night, before a raucous crowd at HP Pavilion, the San Jose Sharks played an inspired game against an undeniably elite opponent to garner their first Game One victory in a playoff series since 2007.
That win came in a second round series against the Detroit Red Wings, a series the Red Wings would ultimately win in six games. But many signs point to the fact that the outcome of this series may well be different.
Thursday’s game was one that previous Sharks playoff teams would never have won.
However, the 2010 version of the Sharks continued to build the case for why this year is simply different.
The Sharks continued to build on their theme of “overcome,” facing and beating a wall of adversity to grab an early series lead.
Minutes before the opening face-off, the Sharks learned that regular-season scoring leader and former captain Patrick Marleau would be unable to play due to a high, flu-induced, fever.
The Red Wings were brimming with confidence and riding a wave of momentum, coming off one of their best performances of the year Tuesday night, as they dominated the Phoenix Coyotes 6-1 to win Game Seven and advance to the second round.
They were still in a regular rest situation, while the Sharks had been idle for nearly a week.
Virtually every hockey expert was picking the Wings to return to the Western Conference Finals for yet another year.
There were so many reasons why the Sharks could have found a way to justify letting Game One get away. The Sharks would have none of them, however. They would again find away to overcome the odds and take an important 1-0 series lead.
The game itself was not easy.
Despite taking a 3-0 lead on three goals from Pavelski, Heatley, and Setoguchi within 1:19 of each other in the middle of the first period (the quickest span to score three goals in Sharks playoff history), the Wings did not go quietly.
They fought back immediately, as Dan Cleary scored to make it 3-1 less than two minutes after Setoguchi capped the Sharks’ early outburst. The Wings began to take a measure of control through the intermission and into the second period, scoring at 4:45 of the second on a Johan Franzen wrister to make it a one-goal game.
The Sharks would finally find their offensive edge again early in the third as they drew two penalties late in the second period and capitalized on a 5-on-3 power play in the first minute of the third, as Joe Pavelski scored his second of the game to restore a two-goal lead at 4-2.
The Wings would again respond, just over two minutes later, as Brian Rafalski beat Evgeni Nabokov at 2:57 to draw back within a single goal with nearly the entire third period remaining.
The Sharks would not be denied the win, as strong defense and some key saves by Nabokov down the stretch sealed the victory 4-3.
In Marleau’s absence, Joe Pavelski continued to build his Conn Smythe résumé with three points: two goals and one assist. Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton combined for a beautiful second goal of the game, as Thornton set up Heatley from behind the net. Defensemen chipped in with five assists activating from the blue line (Boyle with three, Demers with two). Nabokov wasn’t exactly stellar, but was good when he needed to be.
Past Sharks playoff teams would have waned in the face of the adversity they faced in Game One. This year’s Sharks found a way to keep overcoming: they overcame their critics, Marleau’s absence, a lengthy stretch without game action, and a Red Wings team that simply would not quit.
Of course a 1-0 lead guarantees nothing. Just as the Wings showed resiliency in this game, they are sure to show resiliency in this series. The newfound swagger of the San Jose Sharks should serve them well, however, and seems to lend credence to the hope that 2010 may be different than 2007.
Keep the Faith!