Monday May 17th, 2010

There it was.

The dying seconds of Game 1 of the Western Conference final. San Jose, trailing by a goal, wins a draw deep in the Chicago end. The puck ends up on the stick of Joe Pavelski, parked along the half-boards. He threads a cross-ice pass to Joe Thornton, who stands unmolested on the opposite side with half a cage to shoot at. The puck arrives, Thornton unleashes a blistering one-timer ... and shanks it into the corner just before the buzzer sounds.

Maybe it was just one moment. One of those things that's bound to happen over the course of a seven-game series.

Or maybe we were a little hasty in proclaiming this San Jose team to be different than all the others that had come before it.

Because for all the talk about a new attitude, the squad that was beaten 2-1 Sunday afternoon by the gritty Chicago Blackhawks sure looked like the same old Sharks. The poster children for underachievement. A team that always managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Just one game? Just one loss? True on both counts. But the silence that settled early over the normally raucous Shark Tank spoke loudly of the feelings of San Jose's fans: They've seen this act before.

It's not that the Sharks were bad. In fact, they were started off strong, showing no signs of rust from their seven-day layoff. They had their legs moving early, controlling the first period and launching 12 consecutive shots to finish off the second. But they couldn't keep pace with the Hawks in the third. After Chicago got its cycle established, it was only a matter of time before they earned the game breaker.

San Jose's goaltending was solid, with Evgeni Nabokov blocking 38 of 40 shots while spending most of the afternoon sprawled face first on the ice. But Chicago's was stellar as Antti Niemi stopped 44 of 45, including at least three spectacular glove saves that seemed to drain a little life out of the Sharks' attack.

They maintained their discipline, drawing not one single penalty on the afternoon, and kept their legs moving sufficiently to draw five power plays of their own. But they scored on just one of those opportunities, Jason Demers' opening tally at 11:19 of the first, before squandering the remainder, including the glorious chance afforded by Kris Versteeg's holding penalty in the final minute.

Let's take a moment here to award full marks to the Hawks. They walked into perhaps the most intimidating building in the league, removed the crowd from the equation by the beginning of the second, and snapped San Jose's five-game home winning streak by making subtle in-game adjustments to their line match-ups and their forecheck.

Their stars were the best players on the ice. Niemi? Can't say enough about him. He may not have started against the Sharks all year, but his inexperience never showed. The one goal he allowed deflected off the stick of Duncan Keith an instant before it got to the net, leaving him no real chance to stop it. After that, he was unbeatable, making a number of sensational stops including a big glove save on Patrick Marleau just moments before Patrick Sharp tied the game midway through the second on a little wrister that Nabokov underplayed.

Jonathan Toews? He was the best skater on the ice, making his mark in the circle and along the boards while keeping his playoff scoring streak intact. Dustin Byfuglien found the time and space to score the game winner, his second of the postseason. Patrick Kane was flying. Marian Hossa was a defensive marvel. If there was a 'Hawk not living up to his paper, Joel Quenneville kept his inadequacies well hidden.

San Jose's top players? Hard not to notice that Thornton, Dany Heatley and Marleau each were -2, thanks to small errors prior to each Chicago goal. Again, they weren't bad, but they generated nothing 5-on-5. They chipped in with 20-plus hard minutes, but they simply weren't as good as the guys in white.

It wasn't just the big line that came up a little short. How about Pavelski? The hustle was there, but it's starting to feel like his first round scoring heroics may have inflated expectations after three straight games without a point. Chances are nice, but this team is going to need some finish.

The defense managed to keep the Hawks to the outside most of the night, but veterans Dan Boyle and Rob Blake failed to maintain gap control on both Chicago goals. As a group they didn't bend often, but they bent more than the other guys. And when the margin of victory is so slim, that's really all it takes to come out on the losing end.

You know, maybe it was just one game. Just one afternoon when the pieces didn't quite fit.

But after dredging up the ghosts of failures past, San Jose faces two tasks when the series resumes on Tuesday: Even up the series with a win and prove they're not the same old Sharks.

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