CHICAGO - MAY 21: Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov #20 of the San Jose Sharks makes a save in overtime as Troy Brouwer #22 of the Chicago Blackhawks checks Niclas Wallin #7 of the Sharks in overtime of Game Three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center on May 21, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Most Sharks fans remember where they were sitting the moment Branden Morrow scored the goal to end the Sharks season in the 4th overtime of Game 6 against the Stars two years ago. In the same way, we may remember where we were when the overtime of Game 3 of this series against the Blackhawks ended.
Before the the shock of that moment, there was the game, and it really could have ended differently.
San Jose Sharks arrived to Chicago well aware of the dangerous situation they put themselves in due to the previous two games. "I think it's probably a ‘must win' game for both teams," Joe Thornton said. "They win, they get a stranglehold on the series. We win, we're back in the series."
This mindset translated into how the Sharks started the game. There was no waiting to get chances on a counter attack, there was no trying to put up any storms. The Sharks began the game with as much urgency as we have ever seen in this post season and they did earn the first power play of the night as a result of the interference on the goalie penalty taken by David Bolland, as he ran into Nabokov while driving the net.
Power play has been one of the brighter spots for the Sharks in this series, and it seemed to have worked early on again, as Pavelski put the puck past Niemi. But the referees decided to review the goal, and after watching the replays concluded that the puck went into the net off Pavelski's skate and he did not touch it with his stick before it went in. The video replay confirmed the call on the ice.
Both teams traded chances for the remainder of the first period, but both goaltenders were playing at their best and the score remained tied at 0-0 going into the second.
The next period started in the similar fashion - the Sharks coming right out of the gate and keeping the puck in the Blackhawks' zone for the first couple of minutes of the game. While the Blackhawks again withstood the pressure, they could not keep themselves out of the penalty box, and this time the Sharks earned a 90-second 5-on-3 power play opportunity, as Bolland and Hossa were sent to the penalty box. The Sharks had two faceoffs during that period, and won both, keeping the puck in the zone and passing the puck to open shooters. Just when it started to seem like the Sharks were making too many passes and taking too few shots, Patrick Marleau emerged in front of the net, and put the puck in the top corner above Niemi's glove.
Chicago decided to take over the game before San Jose put another goal on the board, and this time it was Logan Couture with a slashing penalty in the offensive zone that put them on a power play. A minute later, it was another brilliant moment for emerging super-star Jonathan Toews, as he passed the puck past several players in front of Nabokov and created an open net opportunity for Patrick Sharp, who didn't waste it. That play made me wonder how the history of hockey might have been different today, had St Louis Blues not taken Erik Johnson or Pittsburgh Penguins not selected Jordan Staal in front of Toews in the 2006 NHL Draft. But the history is what it is, and the Sharks no longer had the lead.
From then on, both teams wasted no time with the puck in the neutral zone, and the game turned into one of the more entertaining hockey games we have seen all season. The goalies had to shine to keep the score from getting ugly, and once again, as good as Neimi was in his zone, so was Evgeni Nabokov.
As the game went into the third period, the Sharks continued to dominate the shot count, as the Blackhawks continued to take penalties. However, their penalty kill was up to the task, and while the shots by the Sharks kept coming, many of them came from the blue line and were blocked before they even got to the net.
As the Blackhawks killed off three penalties in a row, the Sharks continued to put the pressure on the net. On a standard play that the Sharks do multiple times every period, the puck was in Chicago's zone and was dropped back to the point for Dan Boyle. Seeing an opportunity to shoot at the net, Boyle released it, but it went straight into Toews (who else?), who not only blocked it, but sent it towards Bolland who took off with the puck on a 1-on-1 date with Nabokov. The Russian netminder tried to guess what Bolland was doing, but he was left with no chance, and Chicago took their first lead of the game, 2-1, with less than 7 minutes remaining in the game.
Once again, that goal did not frustrate the Sharks, but instead re-energized them. Just two minutes later, it was again Patrick Marleau with the goal, as he put one past Niemi after a rebound on a shot by Dany Heatley as the Sharks were swarming around Chicago's net. The goal became the first pure 5-on-5 goal for the Sharks during this whole series. All previous goals were scored on a power play, with the exception of the one non-power play goal in Game 2 that was scored on a delayed penalty.
There was no stopping to the madness, as the clock expired and the game went into overtime. When the play resumed, both teams continued to play fast paced hockey. The best chance for the Sharks came on a play by an unexpected character, as Kent Huskins broke into the zone and with his shot, he came within inches of becoming a hero.
But the hopes of the Sharks to earn their first win came to an end on one of the ugliest defensive breakdowns I have ever seen. The Blackhawks were passing the puck along the boards in the Sharks zone, and for a split second, Dany Heatley got lost and apparently became unsure who he was covering, but that split moment was enough for Dustin Byfuglien sneak past Heatley and end the game with a perfect one-timer into top corner.
If this picture below is not one of the worst defensive mistakes ever made by an NHL forward, I don't know what else is.
With his back towards the open slot, not picking up anyone else, and completely unaware of what's happening behind him, Dany Heatley's mental error put the Sharks on the brink of elimination, as the Blackhawks now lead the series 3-0.
Not everything is lost, and the season is not yet over. But the pain and the shock is such that it feels otherwise.