NASHVILLE – Sticking with the plan that got them here, the Sharks opted for rest on Wednesday between games three and four of their second round series with the Predators. Only a handful of players went on the ice at Bridgestone Arena.
That’s consistent with the way DeBoer has handled his veteran club post-All-Star break, with frequent games amid a peripatetic Western Conference schedule.
Another reason, though, could be that the bumps and bruises of playoff hockey are starting to add up. When asked about potential lineup changes for Game 4, DeBoer said: “It will depend on tomorrow morning. We have some guys that we are evaluating medically. There are always little things going on, so we'll see where we're at.”
DeBoer indicated that was part of the reason the Sharks shuffled their bottom three lines for the third period.
“We had a few things going on on the bench with skates, and minor injuries with guys leaving and coming back, so that probably was a little bit of it,” he said.
Regardless of those in-game issues, the Sharks were more pleased with their five-on-five play in Game 3 than they were on Sunday night at home, when they squeaked out a 3-2 win. Yes, they could still get more sustained offensive pressure, but it was special teams that let them down on Tuesday. At even strength, they outshot the Predators 22-14.
Perhaps the biggest key to the Sharks maintaining their four-line identity is Patrick Marleau. After skating just 12 minutes and change in Game 2, his lowest playoff total in 16 years, Marleau responded with the Sharks’ only goal of the night in the first period. It was vintage Marleau, bursting through the defense with his speed, and fooling goaltender Pekka Rinne into thinking he had more time than he did to come out and play the puck.
“He was excellent for us in L.A. in a tough series,” DeBoer said of Marleau. “I thought the first two games against Nashville he wasn’t as good, and I thought last night he was back where we needed him.”
Marleau admitted that it felt good to score his first even strength goal of the playoffs, and at five-on-five, the Sharks’ game was better than in Game 2.
“We did some good things,” he said. “I think we were breaking out fairly good. Obviously you’d like to see a little bit more sustained pressure in their zone, and some more shots.”
As for the special teams struggle, DeBoer didn’t seem concerned that one bad night on the power play and penalty kill would bleed into Game 4. He compared it with their first round against Los Angeles, when the Sharks went 0-for-5 in Game 3, their only loss of that series, but responded with three power play goals in a Game 4 win.
“Everybody thought the sky was falling,” DeBoer said to the roomful of media on Wednesday. “We have smart hockey players. It’s not coming out of left field at them the next day when you are showing them on video what we didn’t do well.”
An equally calm Joe Thornton said: “We just weren’t as sharp as we were in the first two games. That’s all.”
The Sharks also have the benefit of staying on the road for Game 4, where they have been better all year. They haven’t lost consecutive road games since Dec. 18-20.
“We’re comfortable playing on the road and we have done a good job of not losing back-to-back games,” Thornton said. “We’d like to get a win tomorrow and go back home, and we’ll see. But we are a confident group. We’re confident on the road.”
DeBoer said: “We were in the exact same spot in the L.A. series as we are sitting here today except we were at home, and I think we are more comfortable on the road than we are at home.”
Still, the Predators are going to be a tough out, and they could easily have the two-games-to-one lead in the series with a few breaks or bounces. This is a deeper team than Los Angeles, with a more dynamic back end, a goalie that is among the best in the World when he’s on his game, and an offense that has looked progressively more dangerous with each passing game.
“They’ve shown even in the games we have won that they are a very good team,” DeBoer said. “We’ve got to settle in here, this could be a very long series. The bottom line is winning four, however long that takes, and we have to be ready to do that.”