This city is warming slowly to the idea that this reincarnation of their once-beloved Sharks might be best equipped to do what seemingly superior teams never could -– reach a Stanley Cup Final.
This is a clear and classic example of inventorying the chickens before the eggs have done their due diligence, and few teams have had more fast-start-slow-finish playoffs in their history than the Battling Selachimorpha, but Friday’s 5-2 blackjacking of the Nashville Predators in the first game of this Western Conference semifinal series had more of the feel that permeated San Jose’s first-round win over the Los Angeles Kings.
More specifically, the sense that this team is in control of postseason events rather than being controlled by them, as so many of their antecedents have been. It is almost as though they have done this before, rather than having been done by it.
It is a sense that still has not taken full grip on the area. Friday’s crowd of 17,026, 536 below capacity, was still an exaggeration by a healthy 1,000 to 1,500, and though that crowd found its throat in the third period, it still seems reluctant to embrace a team that is trying to sneak up on its fan base’s collective heart.
Now maybe it was Day 2 of the NFL Draft Death March, or the Portland Trail Blazers finishing off the Los Angeles Clippers for the right to test Curry-free Warrior cooking, or maybe it was just too nice a night to be futzing about indoors.
Or maybe it was Nashville not being Anaheim, the team most people thought the Sharks had to claw past Los Angeles to face. The NHL’s playoff system leans heavily on divisional rivalries, and this matchup is no kind of rivalry at all. The Predators have no gargoyle-like history, either with the Sharks or the playoffs, their biggest name is defenseman Shea Weber, and its style is score-early-and-counterattack.
That doesn’t work when the other guys get five goals in the third period (although the final two were empty-netters), and it doesn’t work when the other guys take 79 total shots to your 55. It certainly doesn’t work when you barely win the first period and a half but get slowly but surely routed in the final 30.
Friday’s game was prototypical of what the Predators were after, and the danger of them getting it, in that Nashville controlled the early run of play, including Mike Fisher’s power play goal, without ever giving the impression that they would be able to hold it. The Preds won the first period by a smidge but had to scramble to stay close in the second and eventually lost the initiative entirely.
Scrambling, you see, is the Predators’ natural state, as they are well used to it from their nightly wars in the superior Central Division.
Nashville, though, made scrambling seem routine because it was so judicious in the first and early second periods about keeping the Sharks on the perimeter and allowing goaltender Pekka Rinne to have a fighting chance to see the shots coming at him. In that way, the game lost some of its playoff sting because of the lack of scrums and opportunities for showy belligerence that mark most series.
What it needed was some participation from the San Jose power play, the one exemplary area for either team, and that was solved 2:37 into the third when Tomas Hertl beat Rinne to the glove side to cap off a penalty to Ryan Johansen. It brought life back to a listless non-sellout crowd that was growing impatient waiting for the playoff-level stimulation the Kings series provided from the start.
That lurch came when Joel Ward, arguably the game’s most dynamic player, took a nifty pass from Joonas Donskoi and tucked it past and behind an abandoned Rinne at 11:49 of the third, and was repeated when Logan Couture scored a second power play goal at 15:40 to seal the envelope. Nashville, whose strategy seemed to be score early (check) and then tend to defense (semi-check) to hold that lead (no check), was smothered and then shattered.
And San Jose, which has suddenly become the hockey punditocracy’s popular choice for Stealth Team Nobody Wants To Play, had conquered a few more fence-sitters. True, the Sharks remain the most anomalous of playoff teams in that it has a hideous home/absurdly strong road record combo, but unless Nashville can find what abandoned it Friday night, the Sharks may create a little elbow-room in what has been a very Warrior-centric world.
Five hundred some-odd seats at a time.