First-round series provides Sharks and Oilers a lesson in dealing with playoff pain

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Thursday April 20th, 2017

SAN JOSE—For a guy who’d played his best game of this postseason, for a team that had broken out of a humbling, historic scoring slump in spectacular fashion, Logan Couture seemed unusually stoic.

Standing at his stall following the Sharks' 7-0 skunking of the Oilers, Couture’s matter-of-fact manner, his absence of emotion, bordered on a condition psychologists call “flat effect.”

This was because, despite that goal orgy, the Sharks had merely tied this first-round series at two games apiece. It was also because Couture couldn’t have expressed emotion if he tried: his face was still numb from painkillers injected during the game. “They hit my teeth again,” he explained. “They,” in this case, was Oilers winger Drake Caggiula, who jostled Couture’s jaw with a high hit in the first period.

He’s not the first Oiler to target Couture’s upper body in this series and won’t be the last. Last year, Couture led the NHL in postseason scoring. This year, he’s lucky to be on the ice, following a gruesome injury in Nashville on March 25th. A slapshot caromed off a stick, hitting him flush in the mouth, stoving in his soft palate while shattering and rearranging numerous teeth. In the meantime, his mouth is being held together with some plastic bond and an “arch bar” on his lower jaw. When San Jose’s season ends, oral surgeons will go back in and extract a good number of his teeth. Even by the NHL’s sky-high standards of pain tolerance, Couture’s valor is extraordinary.

He played the first two games of this series with wire mask, but ditched the cage before Game 3. It didn’t seem to help: Couture was tentative, ineffective, not himself in that contest, which saw the Sharks shut out for a second straight game.

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One shift after Caggiula’s hit—which, it turned out, further dislodged one or more of his broken teeth—Couture took the ice on a power play, wristing a cross-ice pass from Joe Pavelski over the glove of Oilers goalie Cam Talbot. Couture’s second goal—he ripped a feed from Jannik Hansen from the same spot in the left circle—chased Talbot, who gave up five goals on 24 shots.

Despite that underwhelming stat, Talbot wasn’t really the problem for the visitors. The problem was the skaters in front of him. The problem, Oilers coach Todd McLellan said afterward, was “Everything. Everything. It was minutes one through sixty, all three zones, special teams … you can start anywhere you want.”

Karma, along with the Sharks power play, exerted itself for the first time in the series. In keeping with the take-no-prisoners ethos of the NHL postseason, the Oilers have been unapologetically running Couture, trying to knock him off his game by rattling his already-broken teeth. It is, as San Jose Mercury News columnist Mark Purdy points out, legal, if unsportsmanlike. In Game 4, it was also ineffective.

As we were reminded at the end of every episode of the timeless radio drama The Shadow, voiced by Orson Welles, “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit.” So it did after Couture’s second goal, which left Oilers center Leon Draisaitl so frustrated that he pitchforked San Jose’s Chris Tierney in that part of his anatomy where a man least wants to feel the blade of a hockey stick. Dumb as it was classless, Draisaitl’s spearing penalty earned him a game misconduct—and later on, a fine—and put the Sharks' power play back on the ice. (Pavelski scored his second goal during the ensuing five-minute major penalty).

Members of both teams emphasized, after the carnage, that the rout still only counted for one win. “My math says it's still 2-2," Oilers captain and superstar Connor McDavid gamely pointed out afterward.

That’s true of course. As he often has with this youthful team, McLellan will instruct the Oilers to “park” Tuesday night’s sorry performance; to flush it, forget it, move on.

It may be easier said than done. The way the Sharks won will leave an ugly mark. Tuesday night’s 7-0 pratfall/no-show/egg-laying—the worst playoff loss in the 37-year-old history of the franchise—had the effect of exposing the Oilers, whose lack of playoff chops was thrown into sharp relief by their seasoned, battle-tested opponents.

On a night the Sharks dramatically ramped up their intensity, McLellan noted, his club could not come close to holding serve.

“Our top scorers haven’t experienced this level of hockey,” said the coach, who spent seven years behind the Sharks bench before taking the Oilers job two years ago. “You look at [San Jose veterans] Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Burns, those are some pretty experienced guys who’ve lived through these types of games.”

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It was a not-especially-subtle call-out to McDavid, Draisaitl and left winger Patrick Maroon to stop taking bad penalties and start shouldering more of the scoring load. Echoing the coach was left-winger Milan Lucic, who gave props to Talbot and the surprising Zack Kassian, who’s tallied both of Edmonton’s game-winning goals, but then shared an uncomfortable truth. At some point, Lucic said, “Your big guys are gonna have to step up and win you a hockey game.”

On the subject of uncomfortable, Couture could feel one or more of his broken teeth migrating around in his mouth during the game. And so, between the second and third periods, he received a painkilling injection in his ravaged mouth, which, he said after the game, is “probably worse away from the rink than it is here, where I can forget about it and just go out and play hockey.”

Was his face still numb, 15 minutes after the game ended? “Yeah,” he replied, flashing the barest hint of a smile.

It bodes ill for the Oilers that, in addition to feeling considerable pain, Couture is now starting to dole it out.

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