A team which stumbled into the NHL playoffs spent most of the first 20 minutes of the playoffs appearing to stumble again. The San Jose Sharks trailed 2-0 in the late in first period against the Edmonton Oilers when their long-dormant power play took to the ice. In 15 seconds, the power play threatened twice without scoring before the horn sounded to end the period.
For the Oilers, these first 20 minutes were proof of their rebirth; something fans had waited over a decade to see. It was the exuberance and innocence of youth on full display. All led by the young star rising in the NHL’s furthest north, the brightest star in all the sky. And yes, that two-goal lead, too.
Among the 20 minutes of the opening period of the series, it was the final 15 seconds which foretold the future of Game 1.
In the second period, the Sharks’ power play carried over. Joel Ward, at 36 the second oldest player on the ice, banged in a goal in the waning seconds of the man-advantage to close the gap to a single goal. From this point forward, the Sharks controlled the game.
The veteran team understood playoff hockey. San Jose dominated possession the rest of the night. The third oldest player on the ice tied the game. Savvy defenseman Paul Martin read a Tomas Hertl power move to the net perfectly. Martin went to the right spot for the rebound tap-in, tying the game at 2-2.
The Sharks allowed few chances to Edmonton. A dangerous partial breakaway by the NHL’s top scorer came from Connor McDavid. He split the defenders but was denied by the combination of Justin Braun’s furious backcheck (Braun is number 61 in the photo, the other stick belongs to Marc-Edouard Vlasic) and goalie Martin Jones aggressive play. Early in the third period, a clean breakaway by Drake Caggiula was thwarted by a broken stick as he went to shoot.
In overtime, the 30-year-old Vlasic sent a hard rim from his own zone. It went to Joe Pavelski in the neutral zone and the fourth oldest player on the ice spotted Melker Karlsson streaking down the left side. A perfect pass gave Karlsson the chance to end the game and he made no mistake, firing it past Edmonton goalie Cam Talbot to put the Sharks up 1-0 in the series.
The Sharks did not play poorly in the first period but found themselves down two goals. The Sharks, however, are a veteran, ‘no panic’ team. Like a treacherous villain, they baited younger, less savvy Oilers with hope, glorious hope, before ripping it away. Sans anesthesia. To the boisterous crowd, the Sharks began the night as an obstacle. By night’s end, they were an evil enemy.
The Sharks over-30 crew finished with two goals, three assists and played a major role in each tally.
Oilers coach Todd McLellan, in his post game press conference, listed the sorts of mistakes his team made, including several offensive zone penalties. When asked by a reporter if the list was his team’s inexperience showing, McLellan hesitated, then agreed with the reporter’s premise.
When a reporter asked Sharks coach Peter DeBoer ‘where was this Sharks team in March?’, the coach bluntly replied, “It doesn’t matter where we were in March.” He might as well have dropped the mic.
With their answers, both coaches distinguished between what matters and what doesn’t. In Game 1, experience mattered.
The unpredictability of the Stanley Cup playoffs lives on. On a night where four of the five lower-seeded teams won, perhaps no result was more of a gut punch than the Oilers loss. How the Oilers respond will be the storyline for the next game, perhaps even the series. Edmonton’s playoff innocence lasted 20 minutes. What happens next in this series should be interesting and entertaining. Treachery always is. Game 2 is Friday.
• Tomas Hertl and Joonas Donskoi were both miserable in March, combining for zero goals and just two assists. Each had an assist last night, equaling their combined March output. While goals went to Martin and Ward, the work of Donskoi and Hertl were at the heart of each score.
• Timo Meier was a surprise starter, likely over Kevin Labanc. Labanc had by far the better season, but DeBoer went with the bigger, more physical Meier. Meier struggled to make an impact during the season. However, his rugged, effective play in Game 1 of the series was among his best NHL efforts to date.
• When I previewed the Sharks for Edmonton fans, I didn’t know and couldn’t predict what the Sharks lines would be for the game and series. Part of this was because of injury-related player availability, part because of DeBoer’s frequent use of the line blender. The line balance San Jose has had all year showed again in Game 1. For the record, the lines were:
Pavelski-Couture-Karlsson (6 shots on goal)
• To start overtime, the Sharks sent out the defensive pair of Vlasic and Braun. McLellan, having last change, responded by sending out his second line instead of his top line. After the Sharks won the face-off and advanced the puck into the offensive zone, the Sharks quickly switched their defense pair. San Jose wants the Vlasic-led defensive pairing on the ice against McDavid and his talented top line. For Edmonton, they want McDavid on the ice without Vlasic, perhaps the NHL’s top defensive ace over the last several years. When the McDavid line went out next for Edmonton, the Vlasic pairing returned to the ice for San Jose. Expect this cat-and-mouse game to continue all series.