Sharks

Reasons to believe Sharks can defeat Golden Knights in NHL Playoffs

Reasons to believe Sharks can defeat Golden Knights in NHL Playoffs

SAN JOSE -- There was plenty of worry when the Sharks had trouble winning games at the end of their regular season campaign. Even once they had a playoff spot clinched, reoccurring mistakes and concerns over the team’s health loomed. Not to mention knowledge their first-round opponent, the Vegas Golden Knights, had knocked them out of the playoffs the previous year.

But San Jose ended their 2018-19 campaign on a high note, and now, practice for the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs are officially underway. Critics across the league may still be picking Vegas, but the Sharks are every bit capable of knocking last year’s Western Conference champion out of the postseason.

First and foremost, the Sharks are finally healthy. Erik Karlsson not only looked strong after rejoining San Jose for the regular-season finale, but he clocked a whopping 22:01 minutes of ice time to boot. Joe Thornton, who missed last year’s playoffs due to a knee injury, is successfully leading the third offensive line at an astounding pace. Even Timo Meier, who missed the regular-season finale against the Avalanche with a suspected wrist injury, is expected to be game-ready for Game 1 at SAP Center on Wednesday evening. As the Sharks have shown during the regular season, they are a dangerous and deep group on the ice when their best players are in their best shape.

The depth a healthy Sharks’ roster brings to the ice is what they need to have success against Marc-Andre Fleury. The netminder missed time late in the regular season and lost his last two starts of his campaign, but San Jose knows he can play to another level once the playoffs start. During the Knights’ unprecedented playoff run last year, he made 453 saves on 490 shots-against. Over two starts against San Jose during the regular season, he registered a .950 save percentage.

“When he plays against us, he seems to be on top of his game,” Justin Braun said of Fleury. “Every chance you get, you’ve got to make count against these guys. I think [the Sharks] know that and they’ll be dialed in.”

Getting dialed in doesn’t just take place on the offensive side of the puck. San Jose’s defense has to buckle down and be darn near flawless against Vegas' potent attack, whether it’s the skilled William Karlsson-led top line or a heavy bottom-six with big players like Alex Tuch and Ryan Reaves. The Sharks already know they have to be on another level defensively, especially after being outscored by Vegas in last year’s playoffs 22-14.

“We scored enough to win, we just gave up too much,” Logan Couture said, recalling last year’s second round matchup with Vegas. “Going into this series, we have to be pretty tight defensively if we want to win it.”

[RELATED: Why Sharks can't start poorly against Golden Knights]

Perhaps one of the most important things the Sharks have going for them is knowing they can’t let Vegas get a rise out of them. The Knights are masters at agitating their opponents -- something the Sharks know quite well from four hard-hitting regular season contests. Committing early on to being disciplined works in San Jose’s favor.

“There are enough guys who have played enough playoff games in here to realize what it takes to win, and sometimes you’ve got to take some hits to make plays and not retaliate,” Logan Couture said. “I believe that’s something we’re capable of doing in here.”

Braun agreed. “You don’t want to be taking penalties or running around doing stupid things just to hit guys,” he summarized. “They’ll take advantage of that. Play hard, but play smart.”

If San Jose can stick to that gameplan and stay healthy, the Sharks should be in very good shape. 

Sharks will try to follow in Jamie Baker's Game 7 footsteps vs. Vegas

Sharks will try to follow in Jamie Baker's Game 7 footsteps vs. Vegas

Jamie Baker didn’t have much time to enjoy the biggest goal of his NHL career. 

Twenty-five years ago next week, Baker scored the Sharks’ Game 7-winning goal that clinched a shocking upset over the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Before that could happen, though, San Jose had to protect a lead for over six-and-a-half minutes. 

“Like, literally 10 seconds after scoring,” Baker, the former Sharks winger and current NBC Sports California analyst recalled, “all five of us that are on the ice hugging and all that, and [former Sharks captain] Bob Errey looks up at the clock and says, ‘Boys, we’ve got lots of work to do. We haven’t won this thing yet.’”

They ultimately did. 

Those Sharks, only a year removed from winning 11 games, hung on to beat a team with six eventual Hall of Famers and win their first playoff series.

These Sharks have a few more regular-season and playoff wins under their belt, but hope to follow in the footsteps of Baker and their predecessors when San Jose faces the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 7 at SAP Center on Tuesday night. 

Baker’s goal wasn’t the flashiest in franchise history, but it is remembered as perhaps the most important. He pounced on a turnover from Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood, and fired the puck on net with Osgood scrambling, trying to return to his crease. 

But the goal was a product of the Sharks’ game plan and his teammates’ execution, according to Baker. He said the Sharks just wanted “to keep it close” heading into the third period, relying upon their experience from scratching and clawing for a playoff spot down the stretch of the regular season. 

The Sharks jumped out to a 2-0 lead within the first 14 minutes, but the Red Wings tied the game just 2:36 after the first intermission.

When fellow Sharks forward Ray Whitney pressured Osgood on the forecheck, Errey took away the netminder’s pass behind the net. With Osgood in trouble, San Jose was in position for the go-ahead goal in more ways than one. 

“I just stepped on the ice, and I sealed off the short-side boards,” Baker said. “The puck came and landed flat on my stick -- which was the hockey Gods -- but we went into that game and said, ‘Let’s give ourselves a chance in the third period.’ And lo and behold, exactly what we set out to do as a group happened.

“They made the mistake … and you can’t do that at that juncture of a game, at that juncture of a series. They did, we capitalized, and then we hung on to win it.”

As he would the morning of many other elimination games in his career, Baker said he intentionally found things to do away from the rink to distract himself from the game. He didn’t want to make the same mistake he had earlier in his career.

During an important game when he was younger -- with St. Lawrence University, to his recollection -- he was “kind of drained midway through the game.” Big games “motivated him more than anything” growing up, but in this instance, his mind had been racing with so many thoughts leading up to the game that he couldn’t find the energy necessary to perform at the level he needed to.

Moving forward, he did just about anything to occupy his mind. Whether that was going to the mall or -- in one particular instance -- gardening, Baker made sure to keep busy before he began his pregame routine. 

“Once I got to the rink, it was so easy to get up for the game,” Baker said. “You knew that. So, you have to learn how to control your emotions and you need to peak at puck drop, and then stay at that level until the game is over. You can’t do it until you go through it.” 

Many of these Sharks have gone through it. So have the Golden Knights, despite Tuesday representing their first Game 7 in franchise history. The majority of Vegas' squad is intact from a season ago when the Golden Knights won three elimination games en route to the Stanley Cup Final, including one at SAP Center in Game 6 of the second round.

If the Sharks find themselves leading in the third period just as Baker and his teammates did a quarter-century ago, he said they can’t afford to get ahead of themselves. 

“These are two Stanley Cup-contending teams meeting in the first round,” Baker said. “If you get a goal, you know it’s far from over. … You can’t worry about the end, you have to worry about the means.”

[RELATED: Sharks' Game 7 history in NHL playoffs filled with elation, heartbreak]

Even after the final whistle blew on April 30, 1994, and Baker’s goal stood as the Game 7-winner, he said he still didn’t have much time to celebrate. Two days later, the Sharks began a new series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and his focus shifted to a new opponent. 

Reflection on the accomplishment would have to wait until the end of his career, and since then, his Game 7 goal tops many fans’ lists as the best in Sharks history. He joked that he hopes his goal doesn’t ultimately stay there since it will mean better ones would have passed his tally by. 

What Baker looks back most fondly on is that he had the chance in the first place.

“I tell people what I’m most proud of,” Baker said, “is that the coach was putting me on the ice in the last 10 minutes of Game 7 against one of the best teams in the league. I worked really hard for a long time to make the NHL, and you’ve got to put yourself in a position to get lucky. But, luck follows sometimes when you have the details and all of that.”

Sharks' Game 7 history in NHL playoffs filled with elation, heartbreak

sharksgame7historyusatsiap.jpg
AP/USATSI

Sharks' Game 7 history in NHL playoffs filled with elation, heartbreak

Sudden death. Instant life. Nothing in sports is more intense than overtime in the Stanley Cup playoffs, as we learned anew in the Sharks’ thrilling and terrifying Game 6 double-overtime win at Vegas on Sunday.
 
That win ratchets the intensity of the first-round, best-of-seven series up even higher as we now confront a do-or-die scenario. A handshake will happen Tuesday night at SAP Center. What if this one also should go to extra time? The stress is fearsome to contemplate.
 
The Sharks and their fans have experienced the joy or heartbreak that accompanies a winner-take-all game exactly 10 times. Here’s the history.

1994 first round: Sharks 3, Red Wings 2

It still ranks among the greatest upsets in NHL history. A tenacious Sharks group populated by castoffs and youngters made their first-ever playoff appearance.  

The offensive magic of aging Red Army legends Sergei Makarov and Igor Larionov. The toughness and savvy of veterans Bob Errey and Gaetan Duchesne. The talent and young legs of pups Sandis Ozolinsh and Ray Whitney. Ulf Dahlen digging pucks out of the corner. Arturs Irbe defending his net Like Wall.

This greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts collective defeated a Stanley Cup favorite stacked with future Hall of Famers Sergei Fedorov, Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Paul Coffey and Dino Ciccarelli -- and they did it in Detroit, to boot. 

At 13:25 of the third period, Jamie Baker scored the most momentous goal in Sharks history as Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood strayed from his crease. Bakes’ winner was immortalized by the keen insight of color analyst Pete Stemkowski: “It’s in the net!”


1994 second round: Maple Leafs 4, Sharks 2

The real action in this series was in Game 6, when Sharks forward Johan Garpenlov’s potential overtime series-winner clanged off the crossbar behind Felix Potvin.

In Game 7, the Sharks finally ran out of gas. The Leafs cruised on home ice behind a pair of goals from Wendel Clark and one from Doug Gilmour.

1995 first round: Sharks 5, Flames 4, 2 OT

Another series projected as a mismatch saw the Sharks win squeakers while losing blowouts. In Game 7 in Calgary, original Shark Pat Falloon scored twice, but San Jose gave away a two-goal lead late in the third period.

They hung on for dear life until fellow franchise original Ray Whitney eventually beat Flames goaltender Trevor Kidd over the shoulder in the second overtime -- on assists from Russian icons Larionov and Makarov. To date, it remains the franchise’s only Game 7 Golden Goal.

Journeyman netminder Wade Flaherty, aka Flats, came up huge, making 56 saves to enable the upset.


2000 first round: Sharks 3, Blues 1

Then-Sharks analyst Drew Remenda voiced the view of the hockey world before the playoffs began: “There is no way the Sharks are winning this series.”

Oops!

In another stunning surprise, a San Jose squad that had barely snuck into the eighth spot overcame a President’s Trophy juggernaut led by all-world defensemen Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger. The Sharks shrugged off a 6-2 massacre in Game 6, and took the lead early in Game 7 on a goal from grinder Ronnie Stern.

Then a long-range skipper by Owen Nolan from out near the red line with just 11 seconds remaining in the first broke the Blues’ spirit. Sharks goalie Steve Shields got the better of the Blues' Roman Turek between the pipes, and San Jose had sprung another upset on the road. 


2002 second round: Avalanche 1, Sharks 0

This was the most bitter of Game 7 defeats. It was the best team in franchise history so far, featuring a mix of veteran performance (Teemu Selanne, Owen Nolan, Vincent Damphousse and Gary Suter) and young talent (Patrick Marleau, Brad Stuart and Marco Sturm) that also was strong in net (Evgeni Nabokov and Miikka Kiprusoff.)  The 2001-02 Sharks hung their first-ever Pacific Division banner.

But in Game 7 in Denver against the defending Stanley Cup champions, Selanne missed a wide-open cage from point-blank range with a back-hand shot early in the first. Avalanche legend Peter Forsberg scored early in the second, and Patrick Roy did the rest.


2008 first round: Sharks 5, Flames 3

It was a series much like the current one against Vegas — hotly contested and highly physical. Veteran forward Jeremy Roenick, better known for his accomplishments elsewhere, put his stamp on Game 7 with an epic performance, scoring twice and dishing out a pair of helpers.

Joe Thornton scored the opening goal, and the Sharks rallied from a 2-1 deficit at home with four straight scores, as Nabokov outdueled his former understudy Kiprusoff.

For Sharks fans, pain would pounce in the next round, when the season ended with a quadruple-overtime loss to the Dallas Stars in Game 6.


2011 second round: Sharks 3, Red Wings 2

This series ended up way too close for comfort, as the Sharks handed back every bit of a 3-0 lead to a Detroit team led by superstars such as Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. But in Game 7, San Jose got the jump on the Winged Wheel at SAP Center with first-period goals by Devin Setoguchi and Logan Couture.

Patrick Marleau scored the eventual game-winner -- his first point of the series -- in the third as the Sharks withstood furious Detroit pressure behind 38 saves from Antti Niemi.


2013 second round: Kings 2, Sharks 1

San Jose battled toe-to-toe with the defending Stanley Cup champs coached by former Sharks bench boss Darryl Sutter. It was a series in which every game was won by the home team, and the Sharks couldn’t get over the hump in a tight-checking finale at Staples Center.

Game 7 specialist Justin Williams scored both goals for the Kings, and LA goaltender Jonathan Quick sprawled and robbed Joe Pavelski with a spectacular glove save with 5:04 left in the third.

[RELATED: Limiting Sharks' chances is key to a Game 7 victory]

2014 first round: Kings 5, Sharks 1

A series that will live in infamy: the Reverse Sweep.
 
The Sharks took a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 series lead on Marleau’s overtime winner in LA, but they couldn’t finish the job. A trio of three-goal Kings wins eventually led to the clincher in San Jose.

Team Teal took a short-lived 1-0 lead on defenseman Matt Irwin’s goal, but they were then overwhelmed by an LA onslaught and ultimately completed the collapse they had flirted with in 2011. The Kings went on to lift their second Cup, and the Sharks went into a tailspin, missing the playoffs entirely the following season.

2016 second round: Sharks 5, Predators 0

In a series that matched San Jose’s strength and skill against Nashville’s speed, the Sharks left no doubt in a decisive home victory. Pavelski started the scoring on the power play, Couture scored a goal and added two assists, and Jumbo and Patty each contributed a goal and assist.

Sunday’s hero, Martin Jones, delivered a calm 20-save shutout. The most successful playoff run in franchise history ultimately would fall just two victories short of San Jose’s first Stanley Cup.