For 40 minutes on Friday night, it looked as if the San Jose Sharks were reverting back to the playoff Sharks we’re all too familiar with. It looked like all the intensity and energy they played with against the Kings in the first round were gone, and it looked like Pekka Rinne would face 40-plus shots and stop all of them.
And then like that, they turned into the playoff Sharks of 2016, a team that, thus far, has shown capabilities in the postseason that they’ve rarely displayed before.
See: their five goal third period in which they turned a 1-0 snoozer into a 5-2 thriller capped off with a line brawl at the final horn to wrap up a successful Game 1 victory over the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference semifinals.
Nothing got in their way. Not the lethargy of the first two periods when they were seemingly trying to find their legs, coming off a full week of rest following last Friday’s clinching win over the Kings. Not their well-documented NHL-worst home record during the regular season (and SAP Center wasn’t even sold out for Game 1). Not Rinne, who entered the series on fire, stopping 60 of 62 shots he faced in Games 6 and 7 against the Ducks to push the Predators into Round 2.
And most importantly, not the playoff ghosts of old.
Shaking Off the Rust
The Sharks moved past the Kings quite convincingly because they ramped up the intensity from the get-go. They didn’t let the moment faze them as in years past. They scored goals when they needed to, made saves when they needed them, and clamped down defensively when the game was on the line.
The theme continued on Friday. The game started out as a crawl, with the battle of rest vs. rust leaning toward rust. And then Mike Fisher ripped a wrist shot past Martin Jones five minutes into the second period, and it felt like one of those low-scoring, pull-your-hair-out kind of games.
But while the Sharks bent, they did not break. When Colin Wilson sped in on a breakaway that could have put the Predators ahead by two goals head into the third period, Jones said no, and it was a save that carried momentum into the third.
And when they were the beneficiaries of an early third-period power play, they did not let the opportunity fall by the wayside. Tomas Hertl found a little bit of room between Rinne and the right post and tucked in the game-tying goal.
From there, the floodgates opened and it became a pull-your-hair-out kind of game for Nashville.
Grabbing the Game by the Horns
For not only did the Sharks get a big goal when they needed it, they got the big goal and then proceeded to stomp all over the Predators. Joel Ward did his regular playoff thing with a beauty of a go-ahead tally. Then, the Predators gave the Sharks another power play late and Logan Couture re-directed a Joe Pavelski pass perfectly into the back of the net. And when Ryan Johansen cut the lead back to one, the Sharks quickly erased any hopes of a comeback with two empty-net goals.
Like it was throughout the Kings series, it was the perfect storm just when the Sharks needed it, a third period barrage that featured five goals, a franchise record for goals in a period in a home playoff game.
They’ve done it enough times this postseason that it’s fair to say this Sharks team is not a fluke. What began as a season with tempered expectations that featured a return to the playoffs — but as an inferior team to both the Kings and Ducks — now has the Sharks looking poised as ever as the only team from the Golden State and west of Texas left standing.
But, the Sharks and their fans know better than anyone to temper expectations, especially this time of year. For now, consider it an accomplishment that they still have games scheduled as the calendar flips to May, and consider their remarkably newfound playoff confidence as a small — and just a small — step toward the parade the city of San Jose has long yearned for.