EDMONTON — Hey, I remember this hockey team. Don’t you?
For much of the first period Wednesday night, the Sharks were just faintly recognizable as the group that reached the Stanley Cup Final a year ago. The Edmonton Oilers, young and speedy and adrenaline-fueled by a loud Canadian crowd that was witnessing its first NHL playoff action in 10 years, were in their glory.
What a show. The Oilers whizzed up and down the ice and took a 2-0 lead in Game 1 of the teams’ first round series. It was far too reminiscent of how the Sharks played during that stretch in March where they lost eight of nine games in regulation.
Then, as the second period began, the beloved Los Tiburones that we knew and admired from their 2016 run to the Stanley Cup Final suddenly appeared. It was as if they emerged from a teal fog and realized: “Wait, we did win the Western Conference last spring, right? How did we do that? Let’s do that again.”
And they did it again. Controlling the puck and the action for long stretches, the Sharks gradually grabbed the steering wheel of the game and began methodically attacking the Oilers as a savvy and experienced playoff team does and should. The awakening actually began in the dressing room between the first and second periods when so many of the veteran players stayed calm and reminded themselves of their strengths.
“You may not win this in the next couple of minutes,” said Joel Ward, regurgitating the mantra. “But stay positive. Put more pressure on them. Get the puck deep.”
“The score is 2-0,” said Melker Karlsson. “It’s nothing. That could change in one minute. We just had to stick with it. We know we’ve got some depth.”
Well, it did take more than one or two minutes. But the Sharks did change the entire momentum of the night and did grind down the Oilers by doing solid hockey things — with both Ward and Karlsson playing key roles. Ward scored a power play goal less than two minutes into the second period to close the scoreboard gap to 2-1. About five minutes into the third period, Shark defenseman Paul Martin swooped in at the end of a sustained offensive push to tie the score at 2-2, sending the game into overtime.
Which is when Karlsson took the stage at Rogers Place. As the extra period began, the Oilers were at sea a little bit because of their unfamiliarity with the special torture of playoff overtime. The Sharks simply went out and did what they had done 17 times in the 10 years since Edmonton competed in the postseason — figure out a way to win with a sudden death goal. Karlsson streaked across the blue line to the left of the goal and found open space, took a pass from Joe Pavelski and sent a searing shot past Edmonton goalie Cam Talbot for the game winner.
The shot was just reward for the way Karlsson, along with so many other Sharks, worked in those final two periods plus the overtime to outshoot Edmonton, 34-9 over that stretch. Sharks’ coach Pete DeBoer had placed Karlsson on a line with Pavelski and Logan Couture while adjusting the forward lines to compensate for the loss of Joe Thornton (a scratch Wednesday with a still-recovering knee injury). The choice paid off.
“He’s an easy guy to put there,” DeBoer said. “When you ask good players who they want to play with and his name is mentioned, that makes the decision not so hard. He’s as honest a player as there is.”
With more honest ahead, one hopes. The Oilers are going to be a very good team in the future with rising superstar Connor McDavid and other highly-touted talent. It’s why they have been a trendy pick in some quarters to go on a long playoff run this spring. But on Wednesday night after taking their 2-0 lead, the Oilers fell into a trap that many young and less experienced playoff teams do. They tried to be too spectacular. It was as if, after showing off their stuff in the first period to post that 2-0 lead, they figured they could keep being flashy the rest of the night. It doesn’t work that way in the postseason.
“You can’t look for the long home run plays,” said Oilers’ coach Todd McLellan. “We looked for home runs and the batting average was pretty low . . . I think we have the players to compete. We just have to execute better.”
Couture, playing for the first time in two weeks with a still-healing mangled mouth and a full face cage, was noticeably rusty with his timing and stickhandling. But he won some faceoffs and helped the Sharks maintain their strategy of puck control and keeping the Oilers in their own end as much as possible.
“We forechecked them hard,” said Couture. “They had some long shifts.”
And as a wise man once said, if you don’t have the puck, it’s hard to get on the scoreboard. McLellan pointed that out when a reporter asked about the big shot disparity that grew and grew as the game progressed.
“You don’t get many shots from the neutral zone and your own end,” McLellan said.
The Sharks, by contrast, were able to pound the net often by staying in control of the puck. It looked so familiar. Yet it was also surprising, given the way that the Sharks slogged through March as they lost a huge Pacific Division lead. Where the heck was this Sharks’ team during that month?
“It doesn’t matter where we were in March,” DeBoer answered. “We’re here now. And we’re playing. And that’s all that matters.”
Can’t argue with that.