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SAN JOSE, Calif. – So, a few minutes before warmups began for Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, a black cat darted onto the ice Saturday night. No one is quite sure where it came from, or even where it went, but it hopped from the visiting bench at SAP Center, dashed along the dashers in front of the Sharks’ bench and disappeared through the tunnel, never to be seen again. At last check, maintenance workers were still searching for the feline under the seats, leaving the rest of us to wonder what sort of omen this portended.
There are several options here, depending on your perspective of such symbolism. The cat did emerge from the Nashville Predators’ side, hopping from behind the sticks and through the door nearest to center ice. Then again, it also might’ve dropped its superstitious dust—fortunately, its mad dash left behind nothing else—onto the home team while passing through their end. Of course, it then briefly paused in front of the Bridgestone logo, perhaps to admire the sponsor of the location for Games 3 and 4 (Bridgestone Arena), perhaps to cast its death stare onto the club that bounced the top-seeded Anaheim Ducks two days prior, perhaps because its catmobile just needed new tires.
Anyway, that was a weird thing that happened before the Sharks scored all five of their goals in the third period, including two empty-netters to snatch a 5-2 victory. Game 2 will be on Sunday. And at the risk of further infuriating my editors, here are some non-cat thoughts on the hockey game, starting right meow:
Sharks find advantage on power play
At its best, the Sharks’ power play operates like a symphony in the zone. The puck whizzes around effortlessly, pinballing among defenseman Brent Burns at the top, Patrick Marleau along the left half-wall, and skilled skaters like Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture in lower territory.
And sometimes, beauty arrives on zone entries too. With less than five minutes left and the Sharks up 2-1, Pavelski entered the zone along the left boards and found Couture streaking into the slot. His backhanded saucer pass landed perfectly onto the stick of Couture, who redirected it up and over goaltender Pekka Rinne’s glove.
Rinne goes from high to low
For all his peaks and valleys during the regular season, Rinne turned into a fortress in the Predators’ Game 7 victory over the Ducks, their first winner-take-all match in franchise history. As Anaheim fought for its life down the stretch—and, as it turned out, the job of head coach Bruce Boudreau—Rinne made five saves at 6-on-5, ensuring that Nashville would remain in California for the next round with a 2-1 victory.
A few hundred miles north of Honda Center, Game 1 brought more of the same from Rinne. He survived six 5-on-5 high-danger scoring chances from San Jose in the first period alone as the Sharks made a late push, fielding a short-hop from Thornton like a middle infielder, then snaring Burns’s booming slapper at the horn. In the middle frame, Rinne deftly handled Thornton’s close-range redirect off Roman Polak’s deep drive and corralled another puck launched by Burns from inside the offensive blue line.
Not until Tomas Hertl whipped his second goal of the postseason through a tight seam on Rinne’s short side did the 33-year-old Finn crack, and the floodgates seemed to open wide enough from there for the Sharks to swim through. Forward Tommy Wingels’s wrister came only a few inches from sneaking inside the post. Then Joel Ward deked Rinne onto the ice. Then Couture’s redirection pulled San Jose ahead for good, until empty-netters from him and Wingels stamped the victory. By the end, Rinne watched from the bench, replaced in the dying seconds by backup Carter Hutton.
Sharks trail, but not for long
Mike Fisher’s top-shelf snipe past San Jose goaltender Martin Jones on the power play less than five minutes into the second period dumped the Sharks into (to fill my quota of animal puns for these here pixels) uncharted waters.
Not since Game 1 of the first round had San Jose trailed in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and even then its two separate deficits lasted a combined 4:02. By the time Hertl beat Rinne on a third-period power play, though, the Predators had held their lead for 18:04, more than quadruple the aggregate time that the Sharks played from behind against the Kings.
It hardly mattered. San Jose out-chanced its visitors by eight in the second period at 5-on-5, then by eight more in the final frame to surge away.