SAN JOSE – If Thursday night was a playoff preview for the Sharks–and there’s a 95 percent chance it was–then no one around here will like the ending when the real thing begins next week.
It wasn’t so much that Edmonton beat the Sharks, 4-2. It wasn’t even so much that the Sharks, by losing, all but squandered any chance for home ice in the first round.
It was the optics. It was way the Oilers gathered momentum and confidence as the game progressed, with forward Milan Lucic scoring three goals in the third period to overcome a 2-1 deficit.
Those three goals and that one period may have obliterated the Sharks’ sole remaining important edge over Edmonton entering the postseason–especially given the iffy status of injured San Jose centermen Joe Thornton and Logan Couture.
What was that edge? Experience. Postseason fearlessness. Savvy maturity. Whatever you want to call it. When the Sharks and Oilers line up against each other again in less than seven days as now seems certain, it will be the Oilers’ first playoff game since 2006. They are a young team. Most of Edmonton’s best players have never put a skate on ice in late April. The Sharks, on the other hand, are wizened springtime skaters and reached the Stanley Cup Final last season. By comparison, they have a far deeper big-game resume.’
For two periods Thursday night, the beloved Los Tiburones seemed to be putting that resume to good use. They led on the scoreboard, 2-1. They were being outshot by the Oilers, 21-10, but not outplayed. The Sharks were making up for Couture and Thornton’s absences with strong fundamentals. They controlled the flow for significant stretches and–if you counted shot attempts that were blocked–fired nearly as many pucks toward the net (29) as the Oilers (30).
Edmonton’s only goal in the first two periods was scored by rising superstar Connor McDavid. But you could sense a little frustration in McDavid and his youthful teammates, who love to freewheel and have yet to endure playoff-style grinding, as they tried to deal with the Sharks’ more controlled game.
“We felt like we were where we wanted to be,” said captain Joe Pavelski.
“It was there,” agreed Sharks winger Jannik Hansen about the team’s overall structure. “But it didn’t get done.”
For this, you can credit Lucic, who will be the Oilers’ playoff-time hole card. The former Boston Bruin and Los Angeles King was acquired by Edmonton last summer as an expensive free agent ($42 million over seven years) at least in part because of his 101 postseason Stanley Cup tournament games. In the third period Thursday when it really mattered, Lucic was everywhere he needed to be. First, he tipped in a power play goal to tie the score at 2-2. He was in front of the crease to flip in another puck for the 3-2 lead. Lucic then sealed the deal by cleaning up a rebound for his final goal with 3:29 left in the third.
“Tremendous,” Oilers coach Todd McLellan said of Lucic’s night. “You throw the three goals out, even. His physicality, his ability to keep plays alive, power play execution, I thought he was tremendous. We’re lucky to have him at this time of the year.”
In fairness, we should note that a year ago when Lucic was with the Kings, he wasn’ so tremendous. The Sharks held him to zero goals in their first round playoff victory over LA. So what did the Sharks do in that series to stifle Lucic that they didn’t do Thursday night?
“It’s not the playoffs,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer replied when asked that exact question. “And we’ll come up with a plan for the playoffs when we play them.”
The best plan of all would be to have Thornton and Couture back in uniform. A more likely scenario? One of the two may be involved in Game 1 or Game 2. The other returns in Game 3 or Game 4 or Game 5. In other words, the Sharks must find a way to hold down the fort and keep the series as even as possible until their top-tier reinforcements arrive.
Pavelski explained how the fort-holding can work and lead to a best-of-seven victory: By approaching every shift as essential and not getting cute.
“The smallest of details are going to get it done,” Pavelski said. “It’s worked in the past that way. There’s no magic formula to it. It’s everyone elevating the game a little bit. It’s a team we can play with, I think. We have a lot of confidence in each other.”
The problem is, after the Oilers’ comeback win, they now have just as much confidence. The Oilers team that skated off the ice Thursday at SAP Center had more swashbuckling body language than the one that skated onto the ice for warmups a few hours earlier. It is the sort of body language that shows up when your team concludes a season series against the defending Western Conference champion Sharks with a 3-1-1 record as opposed to a 2-2-1 record.
Of course, that guarantees nothing when the playoffs begin. But the events of Thursday won’t be forgotten, either. Home ice for the first round was basically on the line. After 10 years without a playoff appearance, this was a significant and fairly huge moment for Edmonton. We learned the Oilers could handle a significant and fairly huge moment.
What else? We learned that Sharks goalie Martin Jones is just as good at stopping first shots as ever but is not so good at stopping second shots if he gives up a rebound and his teammates don’t clean up the pucks.
Also, we learned that the Oilers game plan against the Sharks will involve as much shot-blocking as possible. That’s not unusual in the postseason but it was impressive to see Edmonton execute it so well. The Sharks blocked 16 shots Thursday, which isn’t shabby. The Oilers blocked 28.
Finally and not surprisingly, we learned that to beat the Oilers in a best-of-seven, the Sharks can’t rely on Marcus Sorensen to score the big goal. Sorensen, the 25-year-old rookie signed last May out of the Swedish League, was awarded a penalty shot early in the third period with the Sharks still ahead, 2-1. His straightforward attempt sent the puck directly into the pads of Edmonton goalie Cam Talbot.
If Sorensen had instead converted the opportunity and given the Sharks a 3-1 lead . . . well, who knows how the rest of the game would have played out? DeBoer hinted that he knew.
“We had the game on our stick with the penalty shot,” DeBoer said.
Pavelski, who will be a NHL coach one day if he chooses to follow that path, tends to see hockey success in terms of capitalizing on such opportunities when they present themselves. Those opportunities may come just two or three times a game for each individual player. It’s imperative to pounce when they do come.. Lucic did exactly that for Edmonton. The Sharks had several good looks and/or whacks at rebound chances Thursday, but failed to bury them.
“There was some loose change out there that I thought we could have picked up,” acknowledged Sharks defenseman David Schlemko.
Instead, the Oilers picked up the change and picked up swagger. In the end, this year’s Sharks playoff run may be cut short and remembered for the bad luck of having their two top centermen either playing injured or not playing at all. But after Thursday’s game, Pavelski said he still sees Edmonton as “a team we can play with” and defensemen Brent Burns was also upbeat, citing the Sharks’ 2016 run to the Final.
“What we went through last year should help,” Burns said.
What the Oilers went through Thursday counts, too. That’s the problem.