Sharks look to buck trend of losing Game 2 in Stanley Cup playoffs


Sharks look to buck trend of losing Game 2 in Stanley Cup playoffs

SAN JOSE -- A pattern has begun to emerge in the way the Sharks play games in their Stanley Cup playoff run. They win the first game of the series handily, then drop the second contest before heading on the road.

The Sharks' Western Conference final matchup with the St. Louis Blues already has started to follow that trend, with San Jose taking the opening game 6-3 at SAP Center on Saturday.

The big focus now, of course, is not losing to St. Louis in Game 2 on Monday night. 

"It's important," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said after the Game 1 victory. "We've won Game 1 the last two series, and then both times, we've dropped Game 2. Hopefully, as you work your way through the playoffs, you learn from your mistakes." 

This isn't to say the Sharks have been steamrolled in their Game 2 matchups. But they have taken their foot off the gas and ended up on the losing end of the puck.

In their second game against the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round, San Jose erased a three-goal deficit before the first period was over, then lost momentum in the second when Logan Couture's goal was waived off for goalie interference. The Sharks ended up losing 5-3.

In their second game against the Colorado Avalanche in the next round, the Sharks jumped out to a 1-0 lead after the first period, then faltered in the second and ended up losing 4-3. 

San Jose has lost just two games in its home stadium through these playoffs, both of which were those Game 2 losses. This is something the Blues no doubt have in mind, especially considering they have been incredibly successful on the road through their own playoff run, going 5-2-0 in enemy territory.

"We would like to go up 2-0," Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. "We know they're going to be ready. They're going to come out with a good push and their legs will be a little bit better. So it's a lesson for us that we've got to invest early and stay with this."

St. Louis isn't a team that will down without a fight -- which it demonstrated quite well in Game 1 with its heavy and physical play. With the threat of going down 2-0 on the line, the Blues likely will come out even harder and tighten up their defensive stance in front of young goaltender Jordan Binnington.

[RELATED: Five observations from Sharks' 6-3 win over Blues]

It will be up to the Sharks to not sit back as they did in their previous Game 2s and head out on the road with two wins under their belt.

"You know they're going to be better and they're going to be desperate," DeBoer said of the Blues. "They're not going to want to go in a 2-0 hole. We've got to handle that situation better than we have in the first two rounds."

Sharks 'very happy' with Ryan Merkley's progress before first pro year

Sharks 'very happy' with Ryan Merkley's progress before first pro year

The Sharks seem somewhat set at the top of the right side of their defensive depth chart, at least for now.

Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson are established veterans, with three Norris Trophies and nearly 1,300 NHL points combined. They're also 35 and 30, respectively, in a league that is becoming increasingly youth-driven. The future quickly becomes the present in the salary cap-driven NHL, and contributors on rookie contracts are among the most valuable commodities in the sport.

San Jose arguably had an eye towards that future even before general manager Doug Wilson traded for Karlsson. Nearly three months prior, the Sharks drafted right-handed defenseman Ryan Merkeley with the No. 21 overall pick. Now, just over two years later, Merkley is the team's top prospect entering his first professional season, and the Sharks are "very happy" with his progress.

"He's just a hockey rat who wants to be at the rink, and those are the types of guys we want to work with," Sharks director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr. 

Wilson Jr. said Merkeley's love of the sport stood out before and after the Sharks drafted him in 2018. The Sharks executive noticed Merkeley lingering on the bench at the NHL scouting combine that year, catching up with his peers well after his workout session was completed. Merkley also stuck around in Dallas after he became the first first-round defenseman taken by San Jose in five years, sitting in the team's suite at the American Airlines Center on the draft's second day and chatting with former development coach (and current Sharks assistant) Mike Ricci.

That, combined with Merkley's high-end skill, made the defenseman an easy choice for the Sharks despite concerns about his attitude and defensive game. San Jose drafted Merkley as a 17-year-old, and he would be traded twice in his last two seasons in the OHL. Merkley settled in with the London Knights this past season, scoring a career-high 76 points (15 goals, 61 assists) and leading the Knights to first place in the Western Conference when the season was suspended -- and eventually canceled -- due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Wilson Jr. has previously said he felt Merkley made strides on defense, and the Sharks will continue to work with him up close. Whether Merkley starts next season in the NHL or the AHL with the Barracuda, he'll develop under the front office's close watch in San Jose.

"At the draft (in 2018), I think what I was saying was you can't teach Merkley's skill, so that's when you have to really dig in and learn about the kid more to see if he has what it takes to learn, and be coachable, and progress the rest of his game and build that foundation," Wilson Jr. said. "And in our opinion he did, so we're excited to have him part of our future and have him turn pro this year."

[RELATED: What Sharks fans should know about Stanley Cup playoffs]

Merkley will be one to watch whenever the Sharks convene for training camp. San Jose has no right-shooting defenseman signed beyond this season other than Burns and Karlsson, yet it's fair to wonder if the 20-year-old would be better served logging big minutes in all situations for the Barracuda to start his pro career.

No matter which level Merkley begins at next season, the Sharks' future beyond Burns and Karlsson will be here sooner than you think.

2020 NHL playoffs: Everything Sharks fans need to know when tuning in

2020 NHL playoffs: Everything Sharks fans need to know when tuning in

Watching the Stanley Cup playoffs this summer must be a strange experience for Sharks fans.

Sure, it's weird for every hockey fan watching games played in front of empty arenas in the middle of August during a global pandemic. But Sharks fans haven't spent much of the last few years as passive postseason observers, advancing to at least the Western Conference final in two of the four years preceding 2020.

There are plenty of intriguing storylines now that the playoff field has been whittled down to 16 teams. Which should Sharks fans pay attention to? Here's a guide to the postseason for San Jose supporters.

The Villains

Sharks fans' rooting interests in the playoffs can be best described as "Anyone but the Vegas Golden Knights." Not only did San Jose and Vegas square off in the last two postseasons, but the Golden Knights now are coached by former Sharks bench boss Peter DeBoer.

You'd have a difficult time convincing teal diehards to root for Chicago in the first round, considering how many times "Chelsea Dagger" played in the Original Six franchise's Western Conference final sweep of the Sharks a decade ago. But when the alternative is seeing the DeBoer-led Golden Knights march toward a Stanley Cup, Sharks fans have an easy choice.

The Familiar Faces

My colleague in content Brian Witt highlighted some of the biggest former Sharks still playing for a Stanley Cup. Dallas Stars forward Joe Pavelski -- that's still odd to type -- leads the list, but there are quite a few players who once donned teal who are playing for hockey's ultimate prize.

The Eastern Conference could lead to some difficult rooting choices for Sharks fans, though. It's likely that two of the Philadelphia Flyers (Justin Braun), Tampa Bay Lightning (Barclay Goodrow) and Washington Capitals (Brenden Dillon) will square off, and each player still is looking for their first ring.

[RELATED: How Sharks benefit from Rangers winning NHL draft lottery]

The Jokes

Somewhat surprisingly, the NHL really has leaned into the weirdness of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs being played in two buildings -- Edmonton's Rogers Place and Toronto's Scotiabank Arena -- for audiences watching from their couches. There has been a tribute to the "fans" in attendance, a ban on the wave and even multiple appearances from designated hat throwers when a player scores a hat trick.

The NHL had to postpone a playoff game because Game 1 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets at Scotiabank Arena went to five overtimes. Columbus' official account then tweeted this.

The Sharks had some fun with it, too. Collectively commiserating over the playoffs' fundamental strangeness is going to lead to a lot more over the next couple months, even if San Jose isn't a part of the postseason.