SAN JOSE –- Wave after wave, San Jose kept coming at the Nashville with its season on the line. By the time it was over, the Predators were thoroughly waterlogged and lifeless.
The Sharks saved their most dominant performance of the playoffs, if not the season, for Game 7 of their second round series with Nashville. The end result was a 5-0 whipping that advanced them to the Western Conference Final where they will meet the St. Louis Blues, beginning on Sunday.
It was evident early that the Sharks were determined to not let the Preds in the game. They recorded the first seven shots on goal, took the lead on Joe Pavelski’s power play marker midway through the opening frame, and increased it to 2-0 on a nifty Joel Ward partial breakaway before the first horn.
Their Game 6 performance, a 4-3 overtime loss in Nashville in which they were thoroughly outplayed from the end of the first period on, was fresh in their minds headed into Game 7. That proved to be a good thing.
“I think guys just wanted to get out there and put that Game 6 behind us and move on,” Logan Couture said. “We were saying just establish the forecheck, get it in on their D, make this building tough to play in like it’s been in the past. That’s what we did.”
Joe Thornton said: “As soon as the puck dropped tonight, the guys were going.”
Couture’s score early in the second period just 36 seconds after the intermission dug Nashville’s hole a little deeper. San Jose kept pressing even with its 3-0 lead, though, holding the Predators to just eight shots on goal after 40 minutes. Nashville just couldn’t get any sustained pressure against a relentless Sharks club that wouldn’t be denied.
“We played in their end and they were tired,” Couture said. “By the time they got into the neutral zone they were chipping it in and changing.”
That resiliency paid off in the form of more goals in the third. Thornton scored 32 seconds into the final frame and Patrick Marleau added another minutes later, and the game was essentially decided with more than 16 minutes left on the clock.
If there were ever a time to stop comparing the current group to the underperforming, and some would say choking versions of yesteryear, now might be it. Instead of playing tentatively and passive after dropping Game 6, as they may have in the past, the Sharks manned up and proved to be the better team in what ended up being a difficult series.
Just as it was in Game 5, a 5-1 Sharks win, it was the team’s best players that stepped up when needed. Couture posted one goal and two assists, while Pavelski, Thornton and Marleau combined for three more goals and five points total. All of those players were a part of past Sharks teams that lost in the Western Conference Finals in 2010 and 2011, and blew a 3-0 series lead to the Kings in 2014.
According to DeBoer, though, it’s the depth now on the Sharks roster that has allowed them all to be in the position they’re in. That showed up in Game 7 in the form of Ward’s goal, rookie Joonas Donskoi taking a Shea Weber check to help spring a two-on-one that resulted in Marleau’s goal, Dainius Zubrus throwing a team-high six hits, Roman Polak connecting on four hits of his own while blocking four shots, and on and on down the roster.
They all contributed in this one.
“This isn't the same team that it's been in the past,” DeBoer said. “We've got a whole bunch of new bodies, a whole different cast of characters, a whole different identity in my mind, a whole different coaching staff.
“The core guys are still the same, but the core guys here are great. They have great habits, they've been well coached for a decade by the previous staff that was here. They're not the problem, it was filling in behind them. We've got those type of people here now, and I think the guys at the top feel that and are feeding off it."
Now, they’ve earned the chance to do what no Sharks team in the past has ever done.
“We want to win a Cup,” Patrick Marleau said. “We haven’t done that yet. There’s a lot of work left.”