The Sharks put a wrap on the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs Sunday night when they defeated the Nashville Predators in Game 5, 2-1. For the Sharks, this marked the second time in the last two seasons that they have won their opening round of the playoffs in their quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
San Jose knew what they were facing when they traveled back to Nashville for the second time this week. They were facing an opponent who was desperately in need of a win, but that didn’t stop them from moving on with their game plan and advancing to the next round.
“They were coming home and were desperate,” said Kyle McLaren of Nashville. “They had to win and that was the bottom line. We knew that. We knew they were going to come out strong. Anytime you go on the road and try to clinch in the fourth game, it’s going to be tough. I thought we showed a lot of resilience tonight. The guys battled hard. It was just a tremendous effort by everybody.”
Often times when you’re facing a team on the brink of elimination, they look to come out and make an example in the opening minutes of the game in order to set a tone for the rest of the night. So was the case Sunday. The only problem was the Sharks were well prepared for just that.
“We were expecting that storm to come because they were a bit of a desperate team being down three games to one,” said Vesa Toskala, who earned his fourth consecutive victory in net. “They got some scoring chances early, but I was able to make the saves and we managed to escape the first 10 minutes, which was one of the keys to the game.”
“We had to weather the storm the first 10 or 15 minutes,” said McLaren. “They had a lot of chances tonight, but our goalie was outstanding again. Without him back there we’d probably be heading back to San Jose for game six.”
Toskala gave the Sharks a big boost when he made 10 quality saves in the opening frame, somewhat stifling Nashville’s offense. It was something the netminder did the entire series.
“He was cool as a cucumber and that’s what we need from our goaltending,” said Sharks Head Coach Ron Wilson. “He’s a great goaltender. He’s going on 30-35 games of playing well. That’s beyond hot. He’s just established himself as a great goaltender. We know that if ever he stumbles or something happens, Nabby can go in there and play equally as well.”
If Toskala did in fact look as cool as a cucumber, it’s probably because he really was. Much was said about the Finnish goalie never playing in the playoffs before, but he proved anyone who doubted him wrong by his performance in the Quarterfinals.
“It feels great,” said Toskala. “I was just trying to focus on the games as if it were a normal game. It’s still the same 60 minutes of hockey. That’s how you have to prepare yourself for those games. You just have to stay cool and calm and enjoy the hockey.”
The Sharks first got on the board with less than a second left on the clock in the first period when Steve Bernier tipped in a Milan Michalek wrist shot. The goal sent the Predators to the locker room down instead of tied, something similar to what happened in Game 1 for the Sharks when they trailed by two instead of one because of a last second goal. And just like the Sharks in Game 1, the momentum that was built up after that late goal, may have been too much for the Predators to overcome.
“It’s tough to bounce back after a late goal like that and make sure you’re good in the second period,” said Bernier. “They did a very good job. We have to give credit to them. They were cycling the puck and shooting at the net. They could have easily won that game, but the most important thing is that we won the series.”
The Sharks scored the last second goal on the power play. Yet another reason for the Sharks performance in the opening round was largely due to the play of the special teams.
“Obviously the whole playoffs, special teams can win or lose a series for us,” said Joe Thornton
. “Game 1 they had the four power play goals which really hurt us. But our penalty kill was solid tonight, so was our power play and that was the difference in the win.”
“Special teams were obviously the difference in the series,” added Wilson. “In the first game they scored four goals on the power play and we made our adjustments. What I’m proud about is when it matter the most, five-on-five, they really didn’t get a thing going. They did not score one even strength goal against us in this building and they are the best home team in League. That’s a real confidence booster for this team.”
The Sharks are very thankful that they didn’t have to extend the series to a sixth and even a seventh game. They knew the possibilities of what could have happend had they dropped the contest tonight in Nashville.
“I’m glad because it takes away some of the anxiety you feel when you don’t close a team out,” said Wilson. “These are the games when you get the most nervous. If they win they’re going to gather some momentum. We wanted to finish it up so we could get some rest and be able to prepare for the next series. The longer you go the more the anxiety tires you out.”
With just one other series (Colorado over Dallas) in the books, Team Teal will have some time to rest up and prepare a game plan for the next round. Obviously it’s yet to be determined who they will play, but one thing is for sure; it won’t be Detroit. With Colorado advancing, the Sharks will not fall to the lowest seed still in the playoffs, thus making a matchup with Detroit impossible. No matter who they play though, the Sharks should be well rested.
“We’ve got a couple guys that are nicked up, so it’s going to be a good couple of days to rest and get refocused and reenergize the body,” said Thornton. “It’s nice to wrap it up here.”
“We didn’t come here to win just one round,” said Wilson. “That’s not why we played so hard down the stretch. We want to continue to improve and we want a shot at the cup…simple. Now we have to wait to see who we play, prepare and rest up.”