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SAN JOSE, Calif. – At long last, after six days of anticipation, each more tedious than the last, Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals was here. The crowd at SAP Center, waving their white towels adorned with captain Joe Pavelski’s face, roared when the toothed Sharks head lowered from the ceiling. On the video screen, the noise meter had been recalibrated so the highest attainable level read, SECOND ROUND. At rink level, Steve Wozniak opened the door to the locker room, allowing the home team to march out. “This is the year for our Sharks!” he tweeted, and after the home team surged past the Nashville Predators with the biggest third period in franchise playoff history, who could argue with the founder of Apple?
The layoff between games for the Sharks, who tidily dispatched the Los Angeles Kings in five games in the first round, tied with Tampa Bay for the longest of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs thus far, and juxtaposed starkly with the Predators’ predicament. After a 2–0 series lead grabbed on the road against Anaheim begat a 3–2 deficit, and then a Game 7 victory at Honda Center, Nashville simply remained on the West Coast, marching on by jetting north. It felt, as one team official remarked, like continuing the same series, since Saturday night marked the Predators’ eighth game in 15 days.
By the end of the Sharks’ 5–2 victory, rest had prevailed over rust. They became the third club ever to enter the second intermission scoreless before notching five goals in the final period, which also set a new team record for home goals in any frame. Tomas Hertl opened the door by squeezing a close-range wrister under Pekka Rinne’s glove. Logan Couture scored twice, including the eventual game-winner with a nifty short-hop redirection on a power play entry. Joel Ward deked Rinne, his old teammate in Nashville, into sprawling like a marionette, faking a wrister in the slot before wrapping around Rinne’s back once the goaltender went down.
“I think the first 40 minutes we were, I thought, spinning our wheels a little bit,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said. “We weren’t playing as fast as we would’ve liked to have played. Some credit to them for clogging some things up, but I thought we went out in the third and started to play the way we wanted to play. We started to create some speed, get on the forecheck, win some battles, resulted in drawing some penalties and power play goals and really took the game over.”
This was the challenge the Sharks knew was coming, ever since another third-period outburst launched them past their longtime tormenters and Predators-Ducks lurched toward a winner-take-all. The longer they went between playing, the more potential distractions presented themselves, the greater the risk for falling out of rhythm.
“I’ve got friends back home, they all think they’re Bob McKenzie or somebody,” Ward said. “Everybody’s throwing in their two cents of info. But it’s just a fun time of year. Everybody’s anxious. I had a couple of good chats with my girlfriend, gave me some words of wisdom, which kind of helped. My mother came down, which was unexpected a little bit. She’s excited too.”
They practiced Monday and Tuesday, held an optional Wednesday and spent most of Thursday working on special teams. They kept loose in the locker room, blaring Spotify and playing table tennis. But they were also realistic. “Coming off the break that we had, we had some questions about how we were going to be,” DeBoer said. “It might, they understood, take time to regain their rhythm.”
“It was one of those things you bring to everyone’s attention,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “You know it’s there. But you still have to play the games and for us to be well-rested, you could tell in the first we needed to just get to our game.”
By the end of the second period, the Sharks could tell they were rounding into form. They had pestered Rinne with six high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5 in the opening frame, according to War-on-Ice.com, and led by eight in overall attempts. If anything, Predators forward Mike Fisher’s top-down wrister with 4:33 elapsed in the second period, which broke the scoreless tie, only further jump-started San Jose into action. By the end, Martin Jones had made 31 saves, Couture and Tommy Wingels locked the door with empty-netters, and the Sharks had won a playoff game after facing a third-period deficit for the first time since 2011.
“I think a little bit of nerves kicked in a little bit,” Ward said. “Just having that many days, that over-anxious excited to get going again and playing. I think we got going in the second half, made some plays in the first, but I think as the game went on, we hit a little bit of pressure and started to stick with it.
“We believe in ourselves, which we’ve done all year. I think that’s what helps.”