Games one and two of the Sharks first-round playoff series vs. the Nashville Predators can be best summed up in two words: special teams. Eight of the ten goals scored in the first two games were tallied on the power play including all four Predator goals in the opening game while the Sharks would convert three power play goals in the first period of game two to win the game and even the series.
Game three would prove to be no different, as special teams continued to factor into the scoring and the final outcome although special team play would initially come in the form of a short-handed tally, an unfamiliar scenario for either team thus far in the series.
Six minutes into the first period, the Sharks would begin special teams play on the power play as Mark Eaton of the Predators was whistled for hooking. However, it would be Nashville who would strike first in special teams scoring despite being a man down as Greg Johnson led a three-on-one short-handed break down the ice. Johnson fed teammate Kimmo Timonen with a pin-point pass which Timonen converted to give the Predators the 1-0 lead on the short-handed goal.
“I couldn’t see what was happening in the offensive zone but they got the three-on-one and the guy who was going to the net screened me when he made the pass so I didn’t see the puck when he made the pass,” said Toskala. “But it was a good goal. There wasn’t a lot I could do.”
It was the first short-handed goal surrendered by the Sharks in the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs and the last goal the Sharks would give up on the evening. A big part of that had to do with Vesa Toskala standing on his head in the pipes and the team defense cracking down on opportunities.
“The hardest job is to be focused when you haven’t faced many shots,” said Sharks Head Coach Ron Wilson. “He did a remarkable job of staying focused. It is very different seeing shots regularly and seeing no shots for five minutes and when it comes, it happens to be a good one. When he needed to, Vesa made some big saves for us.”
But the special teams scoring would not stop there. With just over three minutes left in the second period San Jose would go back on the power play as Eaton was once again sent to the penalty box, this time for tripping Milan Michalek. With just 10 seconds left on the power play, rookie sensation Steve Bernier was positioned perfectly to collect a loose puck in front of the net and snap it past goalie Chris Mason to score his first career playoff goal. This power play goal would give the Sharks their first lead of the night and ultimately would turn out to be the game winner.
On the evening the Sharks were 1 for 9 on the power play, not nearly as impressive as their power play performance in game two. However, it was a much more disciplined Sharks team and a much improved penalty kill in game three that would help seal the fate of the Nashville Predators on this evening in front of 17,496 raucous fans at the Shark tank.
“We’ve been talking about killing penalties a lot since game one,” said Joe Thornton
. “We’ve been stressing special teams. The penalty kill got it done again tonight. It was good to see.”
“Game one we didn’t know what to expect,” said Ville Nieminen. “We were a little bit confused about what they were going to do. We didn’t know where our sticks should be. How Kariya was going to play…where he was going to pass. After Game one we made some adjustments. We looked at the video. We are all students of the game. We stayed focus between the first and second game and you can see that our penalty kill has improved slowly.”
The Sharks committed only five penalties in Game 3; one in each of the first two periods and three in the third period and surrendered no power play goals to Nashville. On the other side of the ice, the Nashville Predators committed 10 penalties on the night. In total, the Sharks spent 16:20 on the power play while Nashville only received 8 minutes of power play time.
As the series continues this Thursday for game four at HP Pavilion, special teams play for both San Jose and Nashville will continue to play a big role in determining the outcome of each game. And in an evenly matched seven game series, that could determine which team advances to the second round and which team bows out early.