SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The Sharks said they were going to treat Friday's Game 3 against the Vancouver Canucks like a Game 7, because they felt a three-game hole might as well have meant the end of their season.
Sharks coach Todd McLellan hopes they treat the rest of their postseason games the exact same way.
Buoyed by a three-goal first period, the Sharks put forth a tremendous effort for the first two-plus periods before hanging on for dear life in the final minutes while killing a five-minute major penalty. The dominant start proved to be the difference, as the Sharks survived Vancouver’s comeback to win 4-3 and cut the Canucks' lead in the best-of-seven series to 2-1.
"I think our group, individuals within our group, spoke to you today about approaching it like Game 7. They obviously did that in the first period," McLellan said. "My answer to that was I'd like them to approach Games 1 through 7 like it was Game 7. We'll see if we can replicate that again on Sunday afternoon (in Game 4)."
With six minutes to go in the first period, the Sharks held a 15-1 edge in shots, primarily because of the Canucks' lack of discipline. It was a complete turnaround from what happened in Game 2, when the Sharks appeared to have clauses in their contract that awarded bonuses every time someone took a penalty.
The Sharks went 2-for-3 on the power play during the first period and 3-for-10 overall. Outside of a five-minute boarding major assessed to Jamie McGinn late in the third period that opened the door for a Canucks rally, the Sharks stayed in control and didn't let Vancouver’s top-ranked power play beat them.
In three games, the Sharks are 6-for-13 on the power play against the Canucks. In the first two series, they were 7-for-51.
"It's the same guys, we're just doing a better job of executing," said defenseman Dan Boyle, whose 5-on-3 power-play goal early in the third period turned out to be the winner. "We're taking the shots when they're there, passing them up when it's not. It's the same guys two series ago everyone was complaining and had to answer questions about. Now they're on the other side of it.
"When it's going, it's going. Right now it's going pretty well."
Patrick Marleau scored two goals in the first period -- his sixth and seventh of the playoffs and third and fourth of the series -- to get the Sharks off on the right foot.
With Maxim Lapierre in the penalty box for roughing, the Sharks went to work. Joe Thornton -- who had three assists in the game and leads all playoffs scorers with 17 points – set up behind the net and flipped a pass in front to Marleau, who tapped it past Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo from just outside the crease to make it 1-0 just 3:56 into the game.
Ryane Clowe's fifth goal of the postseason 4:26 later -- also a power-play goal -- made it 2-0. He backhanded a rebound through Luongo after the goaltender made the initial save on a point shot by Boyle.
With 2:35 left in the first period, Thornton sprung Marleau for a clear breakaway from the center-ice line. Marleau made no mistake, whipping a wrist shot over Luongo's glove to make it 3-0.
Not bad for a guy who came under heavy fire during the conference finals against the Detroit Red Wings for a lack of production.
"Things are just starting to go in," Marleau said. "I'm playing with some pretty good players, just getting into some good areas."
McLellan, who at times during the last round criticized Marleau, loves what he's seeing out of him and linemates Thornton and Devin Setoguchi.
"He competed hard. He was on loose pucks. He skated. He blocked shots. He was good in the faceoff circle," McLellan said. "Patty is a multifaceted player. He's got tons of ability and he can play in any situation. When he's playing well, you just turn him loose and let him go.
"This was a big game for him, a big one for his line."
Luongo said the Sharks’ early surge was nothing the Canucks didn’t expect.
"Obviously they wanted to come out hard in front of their fans," Luongo said. "We talked about making sure we make the good plays in the first 10 minutes, playing hard and not giving them anything. But obviously they generated stuff off the power play."
The Sharks faced their biggest challenge late in the second period, when they allowed the Canucks a pair of 5-on-3 power-play chances. But goaltender Antti Niemi, who made 27 saves, was at his best as he stopped Alexandre Burrows from in tight. Niemi made three saves overall when the Sharks were down two men.
"I think we had a really compact three guys there and we wanted to keep them outside," Niemi said. "We did a pretty good job on that."
"You have to score there," Sedin said. "With the chances we had, we've got to score there. That's the thing. Niemi played good tonight.
Burrows did cut the lead to 3-1 early in the third period with an unassisted goal, banging home a shot after Boyle's clearing attempt from the top of the crease found Burrows in the slot.
After Boyle's goal increased the lead to 4-1, it appeared it was just a matter of counting down the seconds before the Sharks earned their first win in conference final since 2004, a span of eight games without a victory. But McGinn's crushing hit on Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome with 8:38 remaining turned an easy victory into a nail-biter.
First, Dan Hamhuis ripped a one-timer past Niemi after a perfect saucer pass from Henrik Sedin with 6:21 remaining. With 3:56 left, Kevin Bieksa fired a shot that glanced off the skate of Sharks defenseman Ian White and past Niemi, giving the Canucks life after it seemed to have been sucked out of them by Boyle's goal.
But the Sharks held strong as the Canucks pulled Luongo for the extra attacker, turning what could've been a crushing setback into a victory that will set up a pivotal Game 4 on Sunday afternoon at HP Pavilion (3 p.m. ET: NBC. CBC, RDS).
"Every game for us right now is Game 7," Thornton said. "We realize how important tonight was. Next game is just going to be more important. We realize what's at stake. The guys showed up and the fans were into it. They gave us an extra boost. But we know the importance of winning tonight."
Sharks rookie Logan Couture, who went down hard after a collision with Clowe early in the third period, returned to the bench with about six minutes left. He didn’t return to the ice, but McLellan said he will be ready to play Game 4.
The Canucks weren't as fortunate. Coach Alain Vigneault didn't sound optimistic about Rome being available for Game 4. Vigneault felt the same way about Ehrhoff, who left with an upper-body injury after a hit by McGinn and did not return.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo