SAN JOSE -– In pivotal moments throughout previous Sharks playoff runs, the team’s best and most important players have been accused of fading when the temperature gets turned up. Those past failures haven’t been their entire fault, of course, but it’s not exactly an unfair suggestion.
In Game 5 of their second round playoff series with Nashville, though, there was no question who was leading the charge in the biggest game of the season to date.
Captain Joe Pavelski scored two goals, former captain Patrick Marleau had one goal and set another up, other former captain Joe Thornton made the best pass of the night on Pavelski’s game-winner, while alternate captain Logan Couture had a backbreaking second period breakaway score while centering the Sharks’ best line.
A 5-1 triumph moves them just one win away from an appearance in the Western Conference final.
The big guys made it happen.
“That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to go out and contribute offensively and score goals and play well,” Couture said. “When we’re winning games, most nights the big guys are contributing. That’s just expected.”
They weren’t alone, though. Rookie Joonas Donskoi had a pair of primary assists on the night, setting up Marleau with a deft backhanded pass for the opening goal and later springing Couture on his breakaway.
Chris Tierney effectively slotted in the third line center role, while Dainius Zubrus played his first postseason game on the fourth line and was energized and physical, with a game-leading six hits.
That trust in the team’s depth allowed coach Pete DeBoer to make the line change that he did, bumping Marleau up to the Couture line, where the franchise’s all-time leading scorer had his best game of the series, according to the head coach. They set the tone early.
“We’re not comfortable making that move unless Tierney is playing well, and he has been playing well,” DeBoer said.
Not surprisingly, it was Pavelski, who led the NHL in game-winning goals in the regular season, getting the key marker.
The Sharks dominated play for the first half of the first period, finally solving Rinne on Marleau’s score inside the near post at 10:47. The Predators answered five minutes later, though, when Mike Fisher was left all alone in front of the net to push one through.
Instead of getting discouraged, Pavelski’s one-timer on a brilliant pass from Thornton less than two minutes later gave the Sharks their lead back for good before the first intermission. Nashville, perhaps gassed from crisscrossing the nation since its first round series with Anaheim, was slowly but surely run out of the building after that.
Prior to the Pavelski goal the bench was kept calm, according to DeBoer. That, too, almost certainly came from those aforementioned leaders.
“To our credit, our bench in those situations all year doesn’t overreact, doesn’t panic, and we just went back to work and answered right away,” DeBoer said.
Couture said: “We were confident we were going to go out there and continue to play our game. I thought we had our legs. We were fast, we were skating well. It was just a matter of time until we got the next one.”
The Sharks will attempt to close out the series on Monday in a building in which they dropped games three and four. Although they were defeated in emotional fashion in triple overtime in Game 4, the Sharks were generally pleased with how they played in the second half of that game, including the extended extra time. That momentum carried into Game 5, easily their best of the series.
They’re trending in the right direction, which could be bad news for Nashville, no matter how desperate they will be on their own ice to force a Game 7.
“I like the fact that I think we’re getting better as the series has gone on here,” DeBoer said. “I think every game we’re getting a little bit better, getting more contributions, playing better as a team. We’ve got to carry that into Game 6, because they’re not going to roll over. We know that.”
“I think this was maybe our best game in the series, and have to keep going in the next one,” Donskoi said.