The great thing about the Stanley Cup playoffs is how the pace of the game travels in waves. Shifts that last forty five seconds seem to flow into forty five minutes, each stride up the ice consuming your heart until it's lodged in your throat.
Coming into tonight, Colorado head coach Joe Sacco knew the first ten minutes of the opening period were going to be the toughest stretch his team would face. Survive the typical "home team comes roaring out of the gates" wave that defines nearly every single playoff series league-wide, and you give yourself an opportunity to build upon the momentum that a few big defensive stops can do for you.
And the youngdid just that.
Thirty seconds into the first periodtook a penalty in his offensive zone, setting the plate for the power play unit to hit the ice and make a statement. San Jose blasted six shots at with traffic in front of the net, none of them managing to find the twine. The next half of the period saw a similar form of jump from the Sharks, with the team driving down the middle and getting great opportunities from the center of the circles-- but Anderson was once again up to the task, doing a good job of limiting rebounds and forcing faceoffs to slowly chip away at the energy of HP Pavilion.
Mission accomplished. Colorado had survived. And shortly thereafter, they began to take the play to San Jose.
The next thirty minutes of ice time, including a woeful second period which bore witness to only three Sharks shots on net, allowed the Avalanche to pull ahead with a 1-0 lead. San Jose defenseman would either botch a breakout pass or hit a forward standing at the halfboards who refused to move his feet. Against a team that stacked five men in the neutral zone all night it was equivalent to a self-inflicted gunshot wound-- the Sharks were unable to generate the speed in the neutral zone necessary to beat that defensive alignment, and instead were content to whip low dump-ins around the boards where Craig Anderson calmly played the puck up to his waiting defensemen.
This is one of the issues that plagued the team during the Anaheim series-- an unwillingness to alter execution that is not working. There were few Sharks who realized that a high cross-ice dump to the far corner is the best way to beat this system if San Jose as a whole is having trouble moving their feet through the neutral zone, especially when one considers how well Anderson played the puck tonight.
It is not a decision that one can make after crossing the redline-- at that point, your wingers have slowed their approach into the zone in order to avoid going offsides and do not have the speed necessary to establish a strong forecheck. This is something the team needs to acknowledge in practice tomorrow and learn to commit to a system that is able to adapt. Once that high cross-ice dump goes into the corner with wingers generating the speed that will be able to retrieve the puck, Colorado will be forced to ease up on clogging the neutral zone and allow San Jose to enter the zone without dump-ins. If they can do this in game two it will go a long way towards generating scoring opportunities.
There is a clear and concise difference between the dump and blindly chase strategy San Jose employed tonight when compared to dumping the puck in with a purpose.
At the beginning of the game San Jose was pumping shots at Craig Anderson, most of them riding dead center into his chest. After the first ten minutes of play the Sharks began to tinker with their shot selection, attempting to pick high corners in the offensive zone, leading to an array of shots that flew wide of the net. It was an issue that would befall them for the majority of the game.
Following a phantom hooking call onin the middle of the second, Colorado took to the power play. Some good puck movement and a pass from up to led to a howitzer of a slap shot that blew past Nabokov and gave the Avalanche a 1-0 lead.
The rest of the second was much like the first-- Colorado controlling the tempo and flow, content to chip in pucks and burn away time during HTML's shifts, attacking down the middle and relentlessly throwing pucks to the net against San Jose's other three lines. Defensemanwas wonderful tonight and played a large role in HTML's zero-point performance. He pushed the Sharks to the outside along with the rest of the Avalanche defense, and the unit forced San Jose to pass the puck around the perimeter for the majority of the game. When the Sharks would manage to squeek a shot through the traffic it was one and done. The defensive zone clears flowed like strong wine-- soft, subtle, and extremely potent.
A big kill at the end of the second period kept the Sharks within striking distance, and the game edged into the third.
Three minutes into the period San Jose caught a break--was whistled for gently patting on the shoulder, and the Sharks received what would be their last man advantage of the night. Alas, as has been the case in years past with the postseason power play, it was not meant to be.
However, the breaks continued to come.took a page out of the Avalanche playbook and whipped a shot at the net with screening Anderson in front. With the Colorado goaltender off his angle the puck managed to find some space short side and tied the game at one. From there on out it was all San Jose. They strung multiple shifts together that threatened to put the team ahead, and battled in the corners for loose pucks. With a minute remaining in the game the stage was set for overtime, quite possibly the most thrilling moment one can experience during the NHL playoffs.
And then Chris Stewart met Rob Blake. Whipping a centering feed to T.J. Galiardi in front, the puck careened off the San Jose Captain's left skate into the net behind Nabokov with fifty seconds left on the clock.
It was all she wrote.
Despitelooking like a man possessed on the ice tonight, was a non-impact forward who failed to make a difference. Despite limiting the defensive gaffes that caused him to be sent down to Worcester in the middle of the year, struggled with the speedy Colorado forwards and blew assignments. Despite mentioning will be the most important factor during the series, the most important factor was the lack of a consistent attack that is necessary when you put all of your offensive juggernauts into one basket.
And yet, the biggest blown opportunity tonight wasn't the fact that a multitude of San Jose players missed the net, were beat to loose pucks, or couldn't solve Colorado's defensive scheme.
It was dropping yet another game one at home for the third straight year.
That window of opportunity for Colorado? The one that could have been sealed tonight, locked down and slammed with enough force to send tremors throughout the entire house of hockey?
It is now rendered irrelevant.
Because the Avalanche came in right through the front door.
A wise man once said, "That's why you play seven of em'." That statement is the warmest of blankets tonight, and will allow both the Sharks and their faithful fans a chance to coax themselves to sleep.
Let's hope the entire collective wakes up in time for Friday.