By Allan Muir
For 40 minutes Wednesday night, the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks, two ill-tempered veteran sides teetering on the edge of irrelevance, went toe-to-toe in a mean-spirited contest, with both sides looking to exact an early toll in their first-round series. The officials obliged by putting away the whistles and letting the boys play.
What a vicious thrill it was. When the pace finally, mercifully, slowed in the third, the visiting Sharks found the strength to strike twice against surprise Vancouver starter Roberto Luongo, sealing a 3-1 San Jose win.
Here are some quick takeaways from Game 1:
• You can bet Vancouver's frustrated fans will forget his brilliant play in the opening period and put this loss squarely, and unfairly, at the feet of Luongo.
Maybe he could have saved Logan Couture's opening tally, but the San Jose sniper was alone in the slot and put the puck in the perfect spot above his blocker. He had no chance at all on Dan Boyle's winner after being pinned down by Frank Corrado and Andrew Desjardins and he was beaten by Patrick Marleau's clincher after it deflected off the leg of defenseman Dan Hamhuis as he slid directly in front of him.
No, this one definitely isn't on Luongo. Vancouver's playoff problem is, and has been, scoring goals. They got one tonight. Sound familiar? Last spring, they scored eight goals in a five-game loss to the Kings. The year before, they managed eight in the seven-game Cup finals against the Bruins. Averaging one a night requires the netminders to pitch a shutout to secure the win. That's not a viable model for success, no matter who is between the pipes.
• Let's just go ahead and call the deadline deal that brought Raffi Torres to San Jose in exchange for a third-round pick a decisive win for the Sharks, shall we? What a night for the legendary shift disturber: A game-high six hits that left high-value targets like Ryan Kesler and Henrik Sedin stunned; a ferocious forecheck that led to at least three turnovers by harried Vancouver defenders; and the will to keep going after being hit in the face by the puck not once, but three times. That was exactly the sort of energetic performance GM Doug Wilson imagined when he made the swap...and certainly good enough to overlook the own goal he scored to give the Canucks a 1-0 lead.
• Kesler led all forwards with 21:33 worth of ice time tonight. So how was it that he was almost unnoticeable? He had just two shots (both on the power play) and was 12-of-25 on the draw. More troubling: he was credited with just one hit and showed none of the dazzling speed that made him Vancouver's best player during their run to the finals in 2011. Was the foot injury that sidelined him earlier this season a factor, or was it the punishment inflected on him by the Sharks? Doesn't matter. If this is all he's capable of bringing, the Canucks don't win this series.
• Couture had a monster night for the Sharks, displaying the competitiveness that used to mark Kesler's game. He showed a knack for finding space -- that first period goal is the perfect example -- and he had a lot of bite in his game. Loved his discipline, too. It would have been easy to retaliate after Zack Kassian roughed him up from behind in the first, but he kept his cool, drew the penalty and made the Canucks pay with a power play goal. Keep an eye on him moving forward. This series could be the coming-out party for one of the league's hidden talents.
• No one's going to be talking about Antti Niemi's play tomorrow, and he'll be fine with that. It was a quiet, workmanlike performance from a player whose brilliant year (and shot at the Vezina) was overshadowed by the Blue Jackets’ Sergei Bobrovsky. This was Niemi at his best, keeping to his angles, controlling his rebounds and projecting the cool confidence that his teammates feed off of. A screened point blast off the stick of Jason Garrison in the final minutes might have been his biggest stop of the night, but he made it look easy. • The Canucks have now lost five straight playoff games at Rogers Arena and face a must-win contest Friday night. As tough as it is to win at home, it'll be much trickier to turn the series around in San Jose, where the Sharks went 17-2-5 this season.