In the opening game of the Western Conference Final, the San Jose Sharks played pretty well. Sure, they had some problem areas, which is why they lost the game. Their special teams, a strength throughout the playoffs, lost their battle despite having more power play chances (3-2). Brent Burns, whose defensive zone play had become an effective weapon, returned to being a liability, becoming a giveaway machine. Goalie Martin Jones let in a soft goal at even strength.
In most other areas, though the Sharks were effective. They outshot St. Louis and had more dangerous chances. They missed out on a goal due to a quick whistle.
The playoffs, it turns out, are not very forgiving. The Sharks are now 0-3 when they lose the special teams battle, which they have done once in each round. Joe Thornton’s line was, as it has been often in the playoffs, the best line on the ice.
For all the problems, the Sharks appeared very comfortable with Game 1. Burns giveaways weren’t likely to become the norm again. Jones was unlikely to give up more soft goals. Even after losing the special teams battle in Game 1, the Sharks had still won that battle twice as often as they’ve lost in the postseason.
Nothing about the Game 1 loss seemed unfixable. Except for, of course, that the Sharks were down a game in a best-of-seven series, which made the team more vulnerable.
The losing team in Game 1 is vulnerable since losing Game 2 makes it very difficult to come back. In this postseason, Anaheim went down 2-0 to Nashville and lost the series. Los Angeles went down 2-0 against San Jose and lost the series. Nashville went down 2-0 against San Jose and lost the series. In this postseason, the five teams that claimed a 2-0 series lead all went on to win their series. In NHL history, lose the first two and you have under a 10% chance of winning a seven-game series.
Vulnerability comes from more than just the play on the ice. In Game 1, two goals were disallowed, both on relatively close calls. A Blues goal was taken off the board for goalie interference (upheld on a challenge) while a quick whistle took a goal away from the Sharks. The quick whistle came after Blues goalie Brian Elliott misplayed the puck on what might have been his simplest play of the night. Odd and unfortunate things happen and those can turn a game or even a series.
For San Jose, Game 2 was not simply important, it was bordering on essential. They played like it. The fourth line got the scoring started, with Dainius Zubrus feeding Tommy Wingels to put the Sharks up in the opening period.
In the second period, an undisciplined penalty from the Blues Troy Brouwer led to a power play faceoff in the Blues zone. One of those unfortunate moments followed for the Blues as their excellent defensive-oriented forward, Alexander Steen, had his stick break on the face-off. When Steen tried to get a new stick from the bench, the Sharks generated a mini fast break and Brent Burns fired a shot past Elliott to put the Sharks up by two. Another foolish penalty from Blues pest Steve Ott a minute later gave the Sharks a chance to put the game on lockdown, but the Sharks could not convert. Late in the second period, the Sharks survived a quick strike from Brouwer when his shot got past Martin Jones but hit off the far post
San Jose gave St. Louis a major chance to get back into the game when Patrick Marleau took a four-minute double minor penalty a half-minute into the third period. A strong penalty kill followed and St. Louis did little for most of the time. The few high-quality chances they generated were answered with some of Martin Jones best saves of the series. The Sharks kept their breathing room intact. A ragged third period included four penalties against San Jose, but another penalty against Brouwer resulted in the Sharks second power play goal, again fired home by Burns. An empty netter by Zubrus made the final score 4-0.
Standing In The Right Spot
Two games into the Western Conference Final, the Sharks have done what they needed to do. The series is even, but the Sharks have shown they are the better team.
One area is particularly important. St. Louis had one of the league’s best penalty kills in the regular season. In the first two rounds, the Blues met teams who scored the second (Chicago) and third (Dallas) most power play goals in the regular season. The Blackhawks gave St. Louis problems in the opening round, scoring six power play goals. But against Dallas in Rd. 2, the Blues killed 90% of the Stars power plays, a spectacular rate.
A great penalty kill enables teams to be aggressive, bordering on reckless, during even strength play. In the first game against San Jose, the St. Louis penalty kill continued the excellence it had demonstrated against the Stars. Perhaps they had reason to think their penalty kill would allow them to be aggressive, bordering on reckless, going forward in this series. In Game 2, the Sharks power play overwhelmed the Blues. St Louis will need to play with greater caution in the games ahead, which is not their personality. And yes, the Sharks led the league in power-play goals during the regular season. The Blues have faced the NHL’s top three power plays during their three playoff rounds in the Western Conference.
There is room for improvement in San Jose’s game. The second line of Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, and Joonas Donskoi, for example, has not been overly effective. Couture can certainly improve on his 38% rate in the face-off circle. While Joe Thornton has been effective, he has not put up a point in the first two games.
The time for sending messages ended in Game 1. Game 2 dramatically changes the odds in the series. A Sharks win and it is an even series. A Sharks loss and the odds drop to under 10%. The Sharks played well. St. Louis struggled to keep up. Just as importantly, the Blues also struggled to maintain their poise, even while the game was very much in doubt.
For the Sharks, battling back is entirely in their comfort zone. It often feels like they are battling back, even if they are ahead. The Sharks kept themselves in the series with the Game 2 victory, but they may also have built a platform which can carry them to the next round. If St. Louis can’t find a better level, the Sharks are primed to take control of this series in the next two home games.
The Sharks are in a conference final for the fourth time. In their three prior appearances, they were down 2-0 in each series.
The ninth postseason win is the Sharks second biggest total in franchise history. They won 10 games in the 2004 postseason.
The Dainius Zubrus story is getting considerable play after his effective work along with two points Game 2. I touched on his story in my piece before the series, calling Zubrus “a gem”.
St. Louis had seven players accumulate over five minutes of power play time in Game 2, led by Kevin Shattenkirk, who was credited with 8:05, followed by Steen’s 7:44. The Sharks had three defensemen top five minutes on the penalty kill. Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s 5:53 led the team, followed by Justin Braun and Burns.
If one only looked at the stat line for Game 2, one might get the wrong impression. St. Louis had more shots on goal, more hits, won more face-offs, had more blocked shots and took fewer penalties. Lies, damn lies and statistics …
ZEKE is a native of the DC area where he witnessed the birth of the Capitals franchise. After graduating from Cornell University, which had seen hockey glory before he arrived, he moved west to San Jose. There he witnessed the birth of the Sharks franchise. His wait to witness a Championship from any of these teams finally ended in 2018.