The Stanley Cup playoffs are a test of many things in addition to hockey talent. It is common to hear the word ‘attrition’ during discussion of the NHL’s postseason.
Most teams face attrition. In this context, it can be defined as the weakening or exhausting of teams. Weakening comes from things like injuries. Exhausting comes from playing a lot of games, including heavy hitting, intense overtime games.
Attrition starts before the playoffs, during the 82-game regular season. Losses which have impacted a team prior to the start of the playoffs can carry over in the postseason. Among the players that didn’t finish the regular season healthy are elite scorers Tyler Seguin and Steven Stamkos.
Anton Stralman, Zach Parise, Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre-Fleury are all among the notable victims of attrition at the end of the regular season.
In their series against San Jose, the Predators missed forward Craig Smith in the opening game, a victim of attrition.
Good From the Start
The Sharks entered the playoffs about as healthy as any team in the league, with no notable players out of the line-up. In the opening round, they dealt with heavy hitting, but escaped the attrition associated with long overtime games and key injuries. The opening-round series took just five games. Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer has been able to use the same line-up for seven straight games to start the postseason.
Their opponents have not such good fortune. In the opening round, the Los Angeles Kings were missing two of their top six defensemen. In addition to the loss of Craig Smith in the opener, Nashville just played their ninth game in 17 days, coming off a tough seven-game series against Anaheim.
The Sharks will not have any sympathy for the other teams and their troubles. They’ve been on the wrong end of injuries and ‘hockey happens’ in their years of Stanley Cup playoff frustration.
The Sharks have not yet had any of the puck luck that seemed to follow them in crucial moments of series in years past. There has been no Sharks goalie pushed into the net deep into the third period of a tie game. There has been no rim attempt that hit a stanchion in double overtime. There is no image of Joe Thornton bleeding profusely, while the double minor for a high stick went uncalled. No goalie is ripping through a series with a .950 save percentage against them.
For San Jose, the good fortune continued on Sunday against Nashville with a 3-2 win. For the first time in the postseason, the Sharks were clearly outplayed, yet they still managed a victory. In the midst of a nail-biting third period, Marc-Edouard Vlasic took a Shea Weber shot to the helmet, which dropped the Sharks defenseman. Anxious moments followed as Vlasic remained down. However, he got up and returned to the game shortly thereafter. In the net, Sharks goalie Martin Jones stole the game, stopping 37 of 38 before surrendering a meaningless goal with under four seconds left.
Should DeBoer choose, it seems he’ll be able to start the same line-up for an eighth consecutive game in Nashville. In that game, the Sharks will attempt to take a 3-0 series lead. The other three series are all tied at 1-1.
Hoping for the Sharks’ good fortune to continue won’t help. What will help is taking advantage of other teams misfortune. The Sharks are playing the Predators, but the Sharks are the team that must be the apex predator. The attrition which has struck most other playoff teams has avoided San Jose. The best way to cut the risk of it becoming an issue is to quickly finish off series when the other team is on the ropes. The opportunity is there, they need to take full advantage. So far, the Sharks are doing just that.
In just two games, Nashville and San Jose have combined for five goals with the Nashville net empty. Three goals by San Jose and two from Nashville. Each Nashville 6-on-5 goal followed a Sharks empty-netter, which gave San Jose a two-goal lead.
I’ve been a big fan of rolling four lines and DeBoer is sticking by his commitment to roll four lines. In Game 2 against Nashville, none of the Sharks forwards hit the 18-minute mark. In the prior game, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski topped the 18-minute mark, but were both under 19 minutes. Patrick Marleau and Pavelski both averaged over 19 minutes per game in the regular season.
Nashville has lost five times in the postseason; four of the five losses were by three-goal margins. Though some were closer than the three-goal margin suggests, Nashville had a lot of success in close games prior to their 3-2 loss on Sunday. All of their four wins so far were one-goal games in the final half-minute.