Almost no one expected the Sharks to come out on Thursday and score the first goal. They did.
They scored three in a row, in fact, en route to a 4-3 win that was as close as the score indicated. The game, which I believe will be a microcosm of the series as a whole, was a hotly contested match between two of professional hockey's elite teams.
The game itself was one of the most impressive sixty minute efforts played by San Jose in the last three postseasons, and the first eighteen or so minutes of the tilt was some of the best hockey seen out of the Sharks in the Joe Thornton era.
I mention Joe Thornton not only because of the criticism he has faced throughout his playoff career, but also because he was the best player on the ice Thursday night. I know that I'll get some flak for granting him the honor over Joe Pavelski (who continued his incredible stretch of play with two goals and an amazing feed to Devin Setoguchi), but Joe Thornton played the kind of game that the San Jose faithful has been clamoring for for years.
Many will still criticize San Jose's franchise player; he only had one assist on the night and has just four assists in the playoff year. However, not only did Thornton display the superior vision and crisp passing that he's known for, he also played with a fire that we haven't really ever seen from Jumbo Joe. Second on the team with four hits, he used his size to create turnovers by employing the body on the forecheck. He led the team in takeaways (3), many times winning possession of the puck as the team's sole attacker. And he added a little nastiness too, giving rookie goalie Jimmy Howard one of the most epic snowshowers I've ever seen.
Although Heatley cashed in one of Thornton's beautiful feeds, there were multiple others that came just short of beating Howard. Perhaps most impressive, though, was Joe's overall dedication to every aspect of the game. With Marleau out, Thornton was forced to play more than two minutes on the kill to go with his 17:57 of additional ice time. While it wasn't the most amongst the forwards, the 20:00 that Joe Thornton was on the ice was a complete effort; Ivano mentioned that he noticed Thornton gasping for air throughout much of the third. Once the puck dropped, though, Joe played an almost flawless game. He can gasp all he wants during the stoppages.
Although the game was a solid offensive effort by the Sharks, the defense could still use some work. The penalty kill was stellar, but the Sharks had some issues even strength. Demers was especially victimized by a much bigger Detroit squad; he had trouble keeping possession the puck in the defensive zone. He lost battles, and his small size was really a concern. Whether you like the trade for Niclas Wallin or not, I think that he should be back in the lineup as soon as he can play; his size and presence fits right into the game plan employed by Coach Todd McLellan last night.
One of the most obvious collapses by the defense was on Detroit's first goal. Fault goes to Huskins and Demers who were no where to be found, but Ortmeyer still has to recognize that the zone coverage was broken and clear the front of the net. That's a 1 in 100 pass, but last night it worked flawlessly. In addition to Ortmeyer, the rest of the fourth liners looked pretty bad out there, and that's a worry going forward... especially when the Sharks don't have last change. Although Helminen looked good against Colorado, he had a pretty poor game on Thursday. I think he's riding the bench tonight.
That's partially because it appears as if Marleau will be back from his illness Sunday. Even though he's been maligned (like Thornton) for much of his playoff tenure in San Jose, the benefits of having him back are numerous. Not only does he bring another elite penalty killer and defensive forward into the fold, but his speed is needed against Detroit. Call me crazy, but I also think his offense is going to come around. He should really take a page out of Thornton's book from Thursday night.
Regardless of how you believe Marleau has been playing, the Sharks are a better team with him in the line up. Period. In practice yesterday, Marleau was skating with Mitchell (who has been so impressive) and Malhotra. Couture has been moved up to line one for the time being, but that can all change before the puck drops at 5:07 PM.
The Red Wings were most definitely tired on Thursday; Plank and I agreed that they were probably playing at 75-80%. However, credit to the Sharks for imposing themselves physically on the Red Wings, who were outhit in the game 38-21. If the Sharks can continue this physical play, they have a great chance in the series. A one game cushion doesn't hurt either.
A win tonight makes the whole world seem a little brighter, and the worries about the Sharks' historic woes in Joe Louis arena will be forgotten, at least momentarily.
The Sharks haven't had a two game series lead since they lost to Edmonton in 2006. Here's hoping they change that tonight.
Prediction: Sharks win 3-2. Goals by Joe, Joe and Clowe.