By Stu Hackel
The fourth win of a Stanley Cup playoff series is always the hardest to achieve, in no small measure because the team that's facing elimination often plays as if its collective life depends on the outcome, which -- in an athletic sense -- it does. Once in a while, you'll see a team lack the will to fight to the finish. It's either exhausted or it lacks character (and there's a huge difference between those two things) and it surrenders to the better club. But more often, it is determined not to go down and that's happened a lot this spring, Excluding Game Sevens (when either club can be knocked out), trailing teams went 12-6 when facing elimination through the first two rounds. That's damn impressive and one of the reasons we're in the midst a great tournament.
The Sharks are in a dire situation tonight as the Canucks, who have had problems closing out both their two previous series, are hoping to advance to the third Stanley Cup Final in franchise history, and first since 1994.
After building a three-games-to-none lead, the Canucks couldn't shut down the Blackhawks until Game 7. They had a chance to close out the Predators in Game 5 on home ice in the second round, but Nashville stayed alive for one more game. Vancouver would love to wrap up the Sharks tonight, not give San Jose any reason to hope it can come back, and grab a little breather before the final.
That same problem with closing hurt the Sharks and may have cost them this conference championship. They couldn't take down the Kings in the first round with a Game 5 win at home and had to travel back to L.A. and win in overtime to end that series in six. Then they went up 3-0 on Detroit, but the Red Wings fought back to tie that series before San Jose finished them off in the tightest seven-game series in Stanley Cup history. The Sharks skated into the next round, but it seems they did so weakened by all they had expended to win the second round. They have not been especially sharp, disciplined or energetic.
The Sharks weren't making excuses after their poor Game 4 showing on Sunday, one in which they had numerous chances to open the scoring on the power play and, failing to do so, then paraded to the penalty box and surrendered a series of five-on-three goals, boom...
...all inside a two-minute span, and then they were victimized by the Sedin twins and Alex Burrows on as slick a goal as you'll see anywhere.
Later in the game, the Sharks scored a couple of goals, but the damage had been done. "We threw everything we had at them," said a resigned coach Todd McLellan. "But you're not giving up three 5-on-3 power play goals and coming back on that team. It's just not happening."
The Sharks only blamed themselves for the mental mistakes that led to the loss. And when the inevitable scapegoating begins among observers, it will likely start with Dany Heatley, who was demoted to the third line on Sunday. San Jose's highest paid player, who was first in line to the box with a high-sticking call, has but one assist in the four games of this series. "I've got to find a way to produce, obviously," said Heatley (quoted by Mark Emmons in The San Jose Mercury News). "There's just not enough there. I have to find a way to get shots, get chances and score goals. There's no question I've got to play better."
The question is, can he play better? Can his teammates? They have not raised their game to meet the challenge Vancouver has presented and one suspects that after mustering up their Game 3 win, the needle on the Sharks' tank could now be close to "E." Heatley is hardly alone in the underachievement department. First line winger Devin Setoguchi also has one assist and he's minus-5 for this round. Joe Pavelski has one assist and is minus-2. The top defensive tandem of Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray are a collective minus-7. The power play, which had been operating at over 40 percent, is suddenly shooting blanks.
Here are some things to look for in tonight's game that could indicate whether the Canucks' killer instinct is fully engaged or the Sharks can find more in reserve to bring it all back home for a Game 6.
1. Joe Thornton was injured on this Raffi Torres hit midway through the third period.
Thornton left the game and while he says he's good to go for tonight, how effective he'll be is a major question. It's hard to envision the Sharks winning this game, much less mounting a comeback in the series, without their best player at his best.
2. The team that has won the special teams battle has won three of the four games (each had a power play goal in Game 1). Special teams play has been crucial in this series with 15 of the 29 goals scored so far coming on the power play. But the Canucks PK has perhaps been figuring it out, surrendering only one Sharks power play tally in its last 13 attempts over the last five periods, including none on Sunday. The Sharks have allowed nine man advantage goals in 23 attempts in this series, and they're not helping themselves if they keep playing down one -- or two -- skaters.
3. Meanwhile, the often-injured 36-year-old Sami Salo, who moved up to Christian Ehrhoff's point spot on the Canucks' power play unit, set up Ryan Kesler and rocketed two goals of his own during Vancouver's 5-on-3 feast on Sunday and he personified the depth on defense that is one of the team's big advantages in this series. Both Ehrhoff and Aaron Rome were injured on checks by the Sharks' Jamie McGinn in Game 3 and their replacements, Keith Ballard and rookie Chris Tanev, came into the lineup. Both were "dependable" in the words of Alain Vigneault. Ehrhoff is possible for Game 5 (although with Salo in place, there's no need to rush him if he's not ready), but Rome won't dress. So at least one of the Canucks' defensemen, possibly two, will not be among their usual top 6. The Sharks couldn't exploit that on Sunday but they'll have another chance tonight.
4. Roberto Luongo played well in Game 4 and he'll have to keep it up for the Canucks to close out the Sharks tonight. "Thus far, he's been average to slightly above average in these playoffs but, Sunday afternoon, he was a difference-maker for the first time since Game 3 of the opening round series against Chicago," writes Ed Willis in The Vancouver Province. "This Canucks' team might be good enough to win the Stanley Cup without Luongo at the top of his game, but one thing is certain. It will be a lot easier if he is."
5. The first goal could be key. While the Sharks didn't score early in Game 4, they had their chances and have been the better team early in each game in this series. San Jose scored the first goal in the first three games. The Sharks will probably come out hard again tonight and if the Canucks can hold them off and get the first one, that could cause a letdown on San Jose's bench. But if the Sharks score, it will give them a psychological boost. Twice, of course, they've lost after scoring first, so they'll have to keep that edge this time. This time, there's no alternative.