SAN JOSE -– Nothing reflects the Sharks’ severe drop off between games five and six of their second round series with Nashville more than the performance of their top end players.
They carried the torch in the dominant 5-1 win on Saturday in Game 5, but struggled with everyone else in Game 6, when Nashville played its best game of the series in forcing a decisive Game 7 on Thursday.
It starts with the top line of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl, which combined for just three shots on goal in Game 6, none of which came from within 30 feet of the net. The advanced stats reveal that they were the third worst forwards in shot attempt differential, which is shocking in that Thornton and Pavelski, in particular, were among the NHL’s best possession players in the regular season.
“They played tight on us,” Thornton said. “We had a couple of chances, but obviously we’d like to do a little bit more. Playing against [Shea Weber and Roman Josi], they just take away your time, they take away your space. We just have to do a little bit more to open up against them.”
Pavelski said: “There was a couple times we had some [breakdowns] where, not only breaking out, but we had three-on-two rushes where guys were kind of falling over, losing the puck, however it happened. That’s just the way the night went. We weren’t good enough, by any means.”
Matchups are seemingly playing a significant role in the series so far, with the home team winning each of the first six games. In games in Nashville, coach Peter Laviolette has had the luxury of getting his top defense pair of Weber and Josi out against the Thornton line after stoppages.
It worked on Monday.
Game 7 is in San Jose, of course, so the Sharks will have a better chance at creating mismatches with the last change.
“Obviously you get a little bit of an advantage getting that last change,” Thornton said. “I think in Game 5 we did a good job of using that. Hopefully it works in our favor [Thursday] night.”
Of course, other players will have to be better than they were on Monday, too, in a game that the Predators outshot the Sharks 27-10 after the first period, turning a 2-0 deficit into a 4-3 overtime win.
In Game 5 against Los Angeles in the first round, it was the depth players that stepped up and secured the series-clinching win with Joonas Donskoi scoring twice, and Chris Tierney and Matt Nieto also getting key markers.
That’s what Sharks coach Pete DeBoer was emphasizing on Wednesday, pointing out that in the Penguins’ six-game win over the Washington Capitals, superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined for just one goal and three assists.
“You're going to have ups and downs,” DeBoer said. “This is bigger than one line, or one or two guys. We've talked all year about depth, and I think it's on everybody to bring their A-plus game.
“You don't eliminate good teams this time of year without that type of game. We didn't have that last game, and we've got to bring it tomorrow."
Still, this is San Jose. Considering what’s gone on in the past, if the Sharks star players falter in another Game 7 after blowing a 2-0 lead in Game 6 with a chance to close out the series, well, it won’t be a good look. Thursday’s Game 7 could either shatter the narrative of underperformance in key moments, or reinforce it.
Thornton, who has one goal and one assist in five career Game 7’s, said: “I think every step you get closer toward your final goal, you kind of show this is a good team, it’s a new team, new players, new coaching staff. Tomorrow is a great opportunity to show that again.”
According to DeBoer, the belief level is still high after the Game 6 misfortune.
“This is a tough trail,” he said. “You look around the league, you look at the elimination games going around, the number of Game 7s, how close and how tight the games are. That's this time of year. You have to embrace that. I think our group understands that, and is in a good spot."