DENVER – The San Jose Sharks might be feeling pretty good about their chances of advancing to the next round, having regained home-ice advantage against a gritty but wounded Colorado Avalanche team.
But the Sharks, who hope to take a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference quarterfinals Thursday night at friendly HP Pavilion, aren't taking anything for granted.
"We still have a battle in front of us," said Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who has gotten his game back on track, having turned aside 49 of 51 shots in the past two games. "They're a great team. They're young, they're hungry and they don't want to lose and they're playing their butts off. So are we. We're pushing the pace and trying to play hard and we're doing a good job."
This is how closely contested the series has been: All four games have been decided by one goal, and the past three have gone to overtime.
"It's a best-of-3 now, that's all we're at," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "Both teams are playing really hard. It's fierce hockey in the corners and along the boards and in front of the net. I don't see any reason why that would change for either team right now."
Avalanche coach Joe Sacco expects the Shark Tank to be a lively building, and for the Sharks to come out flying.
"I expect a pretty electrifying atmosphere, but we've been through it twice in their building and we know what to expect," he said. "The key is to play with composure, especially at the start of the game because they're going to come out hard."
The Sharks have managed to draw even in the series without a single goal from high-scoring forwards Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley while getting clutch performances from the second line of Ryan Clowe, Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi. That threesome has combined for five of the Sharks' nine goals in the series while chipping in with seven assists.
Pavelski scored 10:24 into overtime Tuesday in the Sharks' 2-1 win and sent Game 2 to a fourth period when he scored with 31.3 seconds remaining in regulation with Nabokov on the bench for a sixth attacker. Setoguchi followed with the overtime winner.
"We need some production from a few more players," McLellan said.
The Avalanche, meanwhile, will be without two of their top forwards, Peter Mueller and Milan Hejduk, again. Mueller hasn't even skated since suffering a concussion in an April 4 game after a hit by Sharks defenseman Rob Blake, and Hejduk has been sidelined with an upper-body injury since colliding with teammate Paul Stastny early in Game 3. Neither made the trip to San Jose.
"They're obviously important players to our team, very useful players to our team, especially offensively," Sacco said. "But as we all know, dealing with these kinds of injuries in the playoffs is common and we can't use that as an excuse. We have other guys that have to step in and we have guys who are itching for more minutes and guys that are itching to get back in the lineup. It brings an opportunity for those guys to raise their level of play.
"This game's not won by individuals. Outsiders looking in may say that San Jose has a more talented team, but the important word is ‘team.' If you play as a team, you can do a lot of good things."
The Avalanche wouldn't mind getting a few more power plays. Colorado has had 10 in the series, the Sharks 17.
"Some calls are questionable and some aren't," Stastny said. He scored a power-play goal in the second period Tuesday and was in the box for a high-sticking call in the first period when Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle scored 72 seconds into the game.
"You watch other games, other teams have a lot more power plays," Stastny said. "But it's a tight-checking series and I guess when the games are close like that the ref doesn't want to take it out of (teams') hands and would rather have us play five-on-five."
Colorado managed a much better offensive effort Tuesday than it did in Sunday's 1-0 overtime win but still needed another big game from goalie Craig Anderson to stay in the hunt.
Chris Stewart has three goals but no points in the past two games. Matt Duchene, playing without regular linemates Hejduk and Mueller, has three assists and no goals. T.J. Galiardi has one assist.
"You're always looking for your top line players to produce at this time of the year," Sacco said. "Those guys have been very productive for us all season long. Matty certainly has to try and find a way. It's tight checking out there. San Jose is doing a good job and Matty has to find a way to fight through it. He's working extremely hard. Maybe if he simplifies it more it may make it a little easier on him."