To coin a phrase from tennis, the San Jose Sharks now have “advantage” with a three games-to-two lead in their best-of-seven Western Conference Quarterfinal series against Colorado.
Saturday’s Game Six at Denver’s Pepsi Center could be the series clincher, but hockey tradition says winning the fourth game is the hardest one to win.
“We haven’t gotten to them at all. Their best game will be tomorrow night,” Captain Rob Blake said. “The most we’ve been challenged in the series will happen tomorrow night and we’ve got to be ready for that.”
Saturday’s game will bring out a certain kind of hockey in both teams, especially in the Avalanche: desperation, win-at-all-costs hockey.
“The team (will be) playing so desperate. The history of that organization is they’re up to the challenges,” said Blake, who won a Stanley Cup with Colorado in 2001. “They always have been and we expect nothing less out of them tomorrow.”
“They’re going to have their best game tomorrow night. The fourth win is always the hardest one to get,” Blake’s defensive partner, Marc-Edouard Vlasic
, said. “We want to win. We don’t want to come back here (San Jose) and play Game Seven. We’re going to play the way we have the last five games. We have a chance to eliminate them and we want to do it. We have to match their intensity.”
One person to watch carefully is Colorado goaltender Craig Anderson, who’s been one of the top netminders in this year’s playoffs. The Sharks know he’ll be at his best in front of the partisan crowd.
“He’s going to bounce back from last night and he’s in front of his home fans,” Vlasic said. “He’s going to be playing his ‘A’ game like everyone else.”
“We have to have our best game,” Blake said. “They’re going to play their best. We have another level we can get to and we’ve been striving to it in the first five games.”
“If you’re playing at this level, you have a ton of pride and a ton of character just to get to the NHL,” Coach Todd McLellan said. “It’s on every team. Nobody is going to go away easy.”
The Sharks would much rather conclude the series in Denver as a Game Seven could challenge the fate of the series.
“It can even up in one game,” Blake said. “We know how close it is. You don’t leave anything to chance. Not at any time in a playoff series. We need to do what we need to do tomorrow night.”
“The challenge to our team is you’ve scratched and clawed to work all the way back in to take the lead. Now what are you going to do with it? We have to take that test tomorrow,” McLellan said. “I’d like to think we’ll come out with the same game plan and play just as hard. We’ll see.”
While the talk of the Sharks-Avalanche series has centered about Anderson and the amount of shots he has seen, Evgeni Nabokov’s play has been under the radar. That’s shocking considering he’s posted an NHL-leading 1.71 goals-against average. His stellar .931 save percentage would even be better if not for the crazy goals against in each of the first three games that came off Sharks players.
“After Game Four, I talked about having a preference to talk about our goaltender because he’s played extremely well in this series,” McLellan said. “Everybody remembers Game Two, but other than that, he’s been solid as a rock. I think our team has a lot of confidence in him right now and they should. He’s really stood his ground well.”
PHYSICAL, YET SMART
While dominating the physical play against Colorado, the Sharks have been very smart about it. Their average of 7.6 penalty minutes a game is the lowest of all the 16 playoff participants.
The day after their important goals helped spur the Sharks to a 3-2 series lead, the smiles could still be found on the faces of Logan Couture
and Dwight Helminen.
Both acknowledged they received numerous calls and texts.
“I turn it off for games and turned it on and had 18 or 19 text messages,” Couture said. “I called home and my parents were pretty excited. They had a few people over watching the game, so it was a fun night. My dad had the day off work so they were able to stay up late and watch it.”
“It was pretty bad,” Helminen said with a smile. “Probably around 20 text messages.”
Both players were able to relive the game when they returned to their hotel.
“They had the highlights from the game on and it was the first time I’ve seen my highlight, it was really cool,” said Helminen, who said he might try and find a copy. “I think I had some relatives taping the game.”
Both also didn’t take time zones into consideration when they called home after the game.
“It was late by the time I got a chance to call them. They were excited,” Helminen said. “They stayed up and watched it. I woke them up when I called.”
Couture knows he wouldn’t have started the playoffs on the third line if the Sharks didn’t have confidence in him. But the two tallies on Thursday definitely boosted his self confidence.
“Points aren’t everything, but when you’re putting them up, they do help your confidence,” Couture said. “It was good to score those two goals.”
Couture also showed he’s human as he was thinking about a hat trick.
“There was one time I walked in on a one-on-three chance and I was hoping to get lucky and get a shot on net,” Couture said. “I’ll take two.”
A HUMAN TARGET
Vlasic has been a puck magnet, in an unfortunate way. In Game Two, a wayward puck went off his neck and created a Colorado goal. In Game Five last night, he took a puck to the jaw in the offensive zone.
“Blakie was trying to kill me,” said Vlasic with a smile about the errant goal in Game Two. “It happens, more often to me. It’s the playoffs, right?”
Vlasic was asked about how happy he was that the “own goal” didn’t factor into Game Two.
“Ask ‘Blakie,’ he’s the one that actually did it,” Vlasic added. “I get injured. It went off me and in, but what can you do? It’s so unlucky.”
Vlasic has a mark on his jaw from the second puck and noted it’s a good thing his playoff beard is growing.
“I wouldn’t be able to,” said Vlasic about shaving.
McLellan said Niclas Wallin and Jed Ortmeyer were still “day-to-day.”
He also felt that Dany Heatley’s progress is visible in his play.
“He skated better than he did in Game Four,” McLellan said. “If he continues to make progress then we’re getting to where we need to be.”
THE ONE TO WATCH
CSN California drew a 4.15 rating for Game Five and their 4.70 rating for Game Four was the highest playoff rating for the past two years. The ratings are up eight percent from last year.
Game Six will take place Saturday at 7 p.m. and will be available on CSN California, 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com.