For the first time in three postseasons the Sharks won game one of a playoff series, doing so against a team that has historically held the upper hand throughout their encounters. The level of trepidation usually associated with the off-days leading up to game two has been replaced with a form of intrigue, monumental heart palpitations downgraded to slight tremors.
Joe Pavelski opened the scoring nine minutes into the first, with Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi following up in the span of 1:19. Pavelski scored his second of the night during a 5 on 3 to start the third, which eventually proved to be the game winner.
The need to put the win into context is unnecessary. As it was in 2007, an opening night win does not guarantee anything but exactly that-- a one game lead heading into game two. But for a team that has always managed to put the wrong foot forward when entering into pivotal matchups, this was a victory of the highest order, a beacon bursting through a crimson sky, a way to alleviate the enormous pressure that will cascade down upon them until a second round victory is procured.
They did so without Patrick Marleau, who skated in pregame warmups but was eventually held out due to illness. It was a page Todd McLellan took out of his former mentor's book, a tactical maneuver that changed the situational matchups Mike Babcock is so adept at exploiting. And while it probably proved to be a cursory point of note by the end of the second shift, resulting in a Sharks team without one of their best players, it showed that McLellan has taken to heart the importance of wringing out any advantage he can get his hands on.
Alas, the true and tangible advantage that the Sharks held tonight was their shorthanded unit. In 8:41 of penalty kill time San Jose held Detroit to a mere four shots on net, stymying each and every opportunity the Red Wings had to hop back into the game. They closed down shooting lanes by aggressively pressuring the puck carriers, clogged the center of the ice when the puck went to the point, and kept the Wings dangerous attack to the periphery upon entry into the zone. It was a masterful job by the notable leaders-- Pavelski, Malhotra, Vlasic, and Blake. It was made even more intriguing by the addition of Joe Thornton, who stepped into Patrick Marleau's shoes and punched his card to the tune of two minutes and three seconds.
Speaking of Thornton, the level of play he displayed tonight was in line with what has been expected to him since being traded to the Sharks in 2005. Right out of the gate he set up Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley with marvelous opportunities between the circles, and while those didn't find the twine, he eventually connected with the aforementioned Heatley on a slick thread from behind the net to put the Sharks up by two. It was his best game of the postseason despite going up against Niklas Lidstrom for the majority of the night. He threw around the body, asserted himself with the puck, and showed a little bit of nasty by giving Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard a snow shower at the end of the first period.
The Sharks did an excellent job of winning puck battles along the boards, the greatest cliche after a victory, but one that ultimately holds true. They were tenacious in this regard, and coupled with the lack of turnovers at the blueline, did an excellent job of limiting the dangerous transition game of Detroit that has buried many teams before them.
Joe Pavelski. What else can you say about this kid other than he is absolutely playing the best hockey of his career right now. Dan Boyle logged twenty eight minutes of ice time tonight in a standard performance, adding three assists and quarterbacking the power play to a two-goal night. The third line of Jamie McGinn, Logan Couture, and Manny Malhotra generated their fair share of opportunities as well, making it a trifecta of positive performances from the Sharks best forward groups.
Line four was noticeably absent tonight, with all three players (Nichol, Helminen, Ortmeyer) seeing below six minutes of time at even strength. This is in direct juxtaposition to the Colorado series, where Todd McLellan relied on his bottom line to generate energy shift after shift. The loss of Patrick Marleau likely played a large role in this (with McGinn being promoted), but it is something to pay attention to as the series goes along. If McLellan is unable to find situations where he is comfortable playing this group in HP Pavilion, it may mean an even shorter bench when the series heads to Detroit.
The Sharks managed the puck well, making sure to get it deep into the zone and make Detroit work for their opportunities. Their zone entry on the power play was nearly flawless, and for a unit that has had historical trouble in this regard during the postseason, it was excellent to see. Jimmy Howard's propensity to give up 2007 Marc-Andre Fleury esque rebounds was identified, and will be taken advantage of by ripping low slap shots during the remainder of the series.
However, breakdowns in the Sharks own zone nearly allowed Detroit to play their way back into this game. Without a perfect penalty kill and deadly power play on every single night, these are the things that will haunt the dreams of everyone involved if they are not rectified. Jed Ortmeyer was caught horribly out of position on the Red Wings first goal, and although Jonathan Ericcson made a wonderful pass to Dan Cleary from the halfboards, there is no excuse for leaving the front of the net as free and unmolested as it was. Ryane Clowe blew a clear on Detroit's second goal with the majority of the team exiting the zone prematurely, leaving Johan Franzen with a great chance to fire a shot into the upper right hand corner with Dan Cleary setting a screen that amounted to nothing short of a brick wall in front of Nabokov. Brian Rafalski found a gaping seam at the middle of the circles to put the Red Wings within one at the beginning of the third.
However, all in all tonight was a victory that was well-earned, and one that showed just how great this series will be.
With both teams trading opportunities for the majority of the game, and Pavel Datsyuk exhibiting signs that he may be an extraterrestial superman who decided to pick up ice hockey, it's a distinct possibility the number of heart attacks in the Bay Area increase as we go along.
Can't say I would want it any other way.