Todd McLellan knew something was up when he heard his players playing soccer in the hall before Game 6 of this Western Conference semifinal series.
At least he hoped they were his players. The San Jose Sharks have built a reputation over the years of muscle-tightening tension in times of spring stress, and even in a series in which the home team has been inordinately rewarded, one could always rely on the Sharks to make elimination games harder than they needed to be.
Instead, they were Bayern Munich the day after the Champions League final. They acted like they were playing with the casino’s money, and then went out and proved it with a 2-1 win over Los Angeles.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Sharks force Game 7 with 2-1 win]
“It was the loudest soccer game I think I’ve heard them play,” McLellan said later. And Adam Burish, back in the lineup after five games, concurred, saying, “We’re not good when we’re quiet. When we’re a quiet room, we’re in trouble. When guys are joking or talking about the game, we know we’re loose and ready to go.”
So they did – go, that is. They went enough to take a 2-0 lead, because of an early 5-on-3 power play goal by Joe Thornton, and an early second period score by the redoubtable linemate T.J. Galiardi, and they kept on going through the one Los Angeles goal, by Dustin Brown, and throughout a very playoff-y third period.
And by that, we mean a period in which the Sharks held their lead by doing what many Sharks teams in the past haven’t done. By attacking.
“I think the instinct when you have a lead is to sit back a little bit,” Thornton said afterward, “and that’s when we get caught. They start setting the tone. But we didn’t do that tonight. We kept after them, and we were the aggressors. It’s just so much easier when you’re playing on your toes instead of your heels.”
That seems odd considering the fact that Kings seriously outhit the Sharks, 41-22, forced 14 giveaways and had six more attempted shots, 56-50. Three of those in the first period hit a post, which is as close to making a loss a win as it gets.
On the other hand, San Jose blocked 20 of those 56 tries, and very few of them came in flurries. The Kings got their attempts in, but they could not amass them, in part because San Jose goalie Antti Niemi used his clock-stopping skills to best advantage.
“Nemo did a very good job of clock managing tonight,” McLellan said, citing Niemi’s puck freezes to make sure that San Jose’s five remaining defensemen survived the 16 minutes in which Justin Braun was out with a back spasm. “It helped keep us from getting too tired, and it was a really strong performance that way.”
In other words, just a little more micro to explain the macro. If the macro can be explained, because so little of this series can be linked to numbers.
[KURZ: Sharks earn Game 7 opportunity vs. Kings]
There is little enough statistically to separate the teams, because scoreboard aside, the Kings won Game 1 and the Sharks Game 2; the Sharks, Game 3 and the Kings Games 4 and 5. The Sharks won Game 6, but not by so much that you could say it was a transcendent performance. They got a 5-on-3 goal, they avoided damaging penalties, and they won faceoffs.
But mostly, they won on the subtleties – by playing a slightly better playoff game than the Kings. Subtleties like controlling the pace and not letting the opponent get extended zone time have come to matter greatly. They are subtleties that the Sharks historically have been short on in past postseasons, and you don’t get the springtime reputation the Sharks have carved for themselves without the subtleties evading you.
This is an odd hybrid of a team, however – a team beginning a transition but not so far into it that the players don’t know where the leadership core resides. They have known enough success to believe in their essential worth, and enough failure to learn how they can undermine it. Sunday’s win was not a thing of beauty – “It was ugly, but it was a perfect playoff game,” Dan Boyle said from behind a cut on his chin from Los Angeles’ Dwight King that made his beard look better. “Better red than white,” he said.
“This was the kind of game we needed to play tonight,” Boyle continued. “Nothing flashy, nothing fancy. Just getting the puck out and going with it. Very simple stuff, but that’s what wins this time of year.”
Tuesday, though, the Series Where Road Teams Go To Die reverts to Los Angeles, and all the lessons of Game 6 will mean little if they end with a noisy pregame soccer match and a quiet postgame locker room. Ground won Sunday must be re-won, and ground lost must be retaken. It’s what happens when two teams striving to be identical achieve it night in and night out.