The Sharks have been here before. After defeating the arch rival Kings in five games, they were expected to win the second round series against the Predators, who upset the Ducks in seven games. Thus far, the home team has won all six games. That included Nashville’s come from behind 4-3 overtime win in Game Six which forced tonight’s do or die Game Seven in San Jose.
By winning tonight, the Sharks could exorcise some recent demons. Perhaps, they can shed the label that they can’t get it done in the playoffs. A team featuring Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns should be able to make a deep run. They must win Game Seven on home ice at SAP Center. There are no excuses.
Unlike the Stars, who were without star Tyler Seguin and had shaky goaltending from the tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi which resulted in a 6-1 home humiliation to the Blues in Game Seven Wednesday night, the Sharks have all the ingredients of a team that should prevail tonight and challenge for the Stanley Cup. That includes first-year starter Martin Jones, who has been mostly brilliant in his first postseason. He was Jonathan Quick’s understudy with the Kings. He got the better of Quick in the first round and was told to go win it by his former teammate.
In Game Six, Jones was a little shaky allowing two backhand goals including a stoppable game-winner to Viktor Arvidsson just 2:03 into overtime. Arvidsson beat a couple of Sharks on an innocent looking play and let go of a rising backhand that fooled Jones, forcing the seventh game. In that game he allowed four goals on 32 shots. But in a series that’s favored the home team, Jones has permitted five goals on 95 shots in San Jose’s three home wins. At Nashville, he gave up 12 goals on 102 shots. If he can perform like he has on home ice, then the Sharks’ chances are pretty good. But also expect one of the game’s best goalies, Pekka Rinne to give his team a shot. He is fully capable of stealing a seventh game.
The Sharks have played better at home outscoring the Preds 13-5. In a series like this, the home team has the final change. Look for San Jose coach Pete DeBoer to exploit the match-ups. Oddly enough, the Sharks were a better road team during the season. They won all three games at Staples Center in their first round triumph over the Kings.
At this point, you can throw everything out. In Game Seven, anything can happen. A scary thought for San Jose. It was a year ago that the Rangers couldn’t be beaten in a home Game Seven at MSG. Then, it happened. They were shutout 2-0 by the Lightning eliminated on their home ice in a oddly played Eastern Conference Final. That was a series that saw the road teams win five of the seven games. Even after they blew out the Bolts at Tampa in Game Six, I didn’t have a good feeling. They also blanked the Rangers in Game Five 2-0. A game I attended with my family. I knew it was possible.
Many critics believe the Sharks are lacking something to go far. Most of the blame is usually pointed in the direction of Thornton. The big center who went first overall in the ’97 Draft a pick before Marleau went to the Sharks. It was during ’05-06 that the Sharks acquired Jumbo Joe from the Bruins for a lopsided package of Wayne Primeau, Marco Sturm and Brad Stuart. In 58 games, Thornton put up 92 points (20-72-92) overtaking Jaromir Jagr for the Art Ross. He also won the Hart Trophy and led the Sharks to the second round.
One of the game’s greatest passers, the 36-year old future Hall of Famer is missing a Stanley Cup from his resume. Despite helping lead San Jose to two trips to the Western Conference Final, he’s been labeled “soft.” Once the Sharks’ captain, he was stripped as was Marleau. It’s now Pavelski who wears the ‘C’ and is their emotional leader. He’s scored eight goals this postseason. Many coming from in front where he’s made a living. He and Couture are the younger players who have taken pressure off Thornton. Couture has 14 points (6-8-14) while Brent Burns leads the team in scoring with 15 (4-11-15).
The Sharks are more of a complete team this time. Thornton has contributed two goals and seven helpers while Marleau has scored three goals and added four assists. Joonas Donskoi has four goals and Chris Tierney has three. There’s a lot to like about this team. Joel Ward was brought in for experience last summer. He has a goal and five helpers. Tomas Hertl had a good season but has been quiet with only two goals so far.
Paul Martin signed to solidify the blue line, adding depth to a defense that features Burns and anchor Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Roman Polak was brought in at the deadline to toughen up the D. Justin Braun and Brenden Dillon round it out.
The time is now for the Sharks to win. Thornton and Marleau aren’t getting any younger. When they take on the Preds at 9 PM later, the pressure is squarely on. Not to take away from Nashville, who boasts a strong blue line featuring Shea Weber and Roman Josi along with Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis.
Under proven coach Peter Laviolette, who guided the Canes to a Cup in ’06, the Preds are pesky. They fore-check hard and battle you. James Neal has had a good playoffs. His goal with over seven minutes left in regulation extended their season. While Filip Forsberg (2 goals) has struggled, Colin Wilson has excelled on a cohesive line with Game Four triple overtime hero Mike Fisher. Wilson leads the team with 13 points (5-8-13) while Fisher has five goals. Ryan Johansen has four goals and four helpers. Craig Smith has been snake bit.
Nashville is led by their D. Ekholm (3-4-7), Weber (3-4-7) and Josi (1-8-9) are all dangerous offensively. Ellis is also capable. Barret Jackman and Anthony Bitetto aren’t there to provide offense. Just smart shifts for when the top four can’t play.
The Preds have proven they can play with the Sharks. They could have the edge in net due to Rinne’s experience. He’s trying to carry the franchise to its first Conference Final. He was better than either of Anaheim’s young duo in Round One. He’s been almost even to Jones in this round. Ironically, each goalie brings a .913 save percentage into tonight. Jones has a 2.35 goals-against-average while Rinne has a 2.41 GAA. Eerily similar.
It sets up to be a great game. Hopefully, better than the awful mess that was St. Louis/Dallas. The Sharks have a deeper team. But can they finally get over the hump? Win tonight and it guarantees a Conference Final against the Blues, who haven’t gone this far since ’01. Either way, the West will be represented by a different team for the Cup. It should be fascinating.