SAN JOSE – The biggest concern for the Sharks headed into Friday’s second round opener against Nashville came to fruition.
After a week off between games, most of San Jose’s skaters were a tad off in the first period, misfiring on routine passes and not churning their legs as powerfully as they had in the five-game first round slaying of Los Angeles.
Not Joel Ward, though. Six minutes into the first period he squashed Ryan Ellis behind the Sharks’ net in what was his best attempt to help the team get right back into playoff-mode.
“We knew they had played a tough seven-game series against Anaheim,” Ward said. “For us, we’ve been off for a couple of days, so tried to engage as quickly as possible.”
It took another 27 minutes for the Sharks to finally break through on the scoreboard to tie the game at 1-1, when Ward handed the puck to Tomas Hertl, who turned around and whipped in a power play goal inside the near post. About nine minutes later Ward took care of the scoring himself, dekeing goalie Pekka Rinne out of his skates before stick handling the frozen disc over the line at 11:49 of the final frame.
It was maybe the prettiest goal of the playoffs for the Sharks, who never trailed after that in a 5-2 win. San Jose improved to 5-1 in the postseason, and captured the vital series opener against the Preds.
“He was one guy that I thought didn’t have a lot of rust. I thought he was very good right from the drop of the puck tonight,” coach Pete DeBoer said of Ward.
Ward is known as a player who raises his game in the postseason, and with six points through five games, he’s fourth on the Sharks in playoff scoring. His previous big playoff moments include a tying goal with 1.6 seconds left on the clock in an Eastern Conference Semifinal game, and a Game 7 overtime winner, both with Washington.
He averages .44 points-per-game in the regular season, and after Friday, has .69 points-per-game in the playoffs.
“This time of year everybody is looking for big, heavy, hard players,” DeBoer said. “It’s usually will and strength and how hard you’re willing to play. I think that’s why he thrives. He’s that type of player. Those are his characteristics. They don’t show up as much in the regular season as they do at this time of year when things get really tough and really hard.”
Ward said: “I just try to embrace the moment. I think it’s just the atmosphere of the crowds, whether it’s home or away. It’s fun. Everyone is ramped up.”
While Ward’s performance stands out, the Sharks’ power play was also key to their win. Couture’s goal with 4:20 to go in regulation – a deflection from the slot set up by Joe Pavelski – upped San Jose’s lead to 3-1, and ended up being the game-winner after Ryan Johansen’s score brought Nashville back to within 3-2 with less than two minutes to go.
San Jose converted on two of its three power plays, and on the one it didn’t in the second period, the top unit had the puck in the offensive zone for nearly the entire two minutes and generated five shots.
“We had some good looks. We shot the puck, we got it back,” said Couture, who also had an empty net goal to ensure the victory. “Pavs made a great play on my goal, and Hertl made a great play on that down-and-in.”
Perhaps overlooked was Martin Jones’ performance in net. Although he allowed Mike Fisher’s laser on the power play to beat him in the second period, the goalie made some of his best saves of the playoffs so far on a Viktor Arvidsson wrap-around in the first and a Colin Wilson partial breakaway in the final minute of the second, keeping it just a 1-0 deficit.
San Jose significantly controlled play for most of the second half of the game, suddenly recalling what made it successful against the Kings.
“Jonesy made some saves, let us hang around and survive that, and we got going,” DeBoer said. “To be able to come out of Game 1 with a win, even though I think we didn’t play our best 60 minutes, is good, because I think we’ll be better in Game 2.”
Couture said: “From maybe the 10-minute mark of the second period, I thought we were a much better team than they were. We played a good 30 minutes once we felt better.”