We don't need to rehash every harrowing detail of the Sharks' sordid playoff history in order to establish that this franchise has been met with tragedy more often than success in postseasons past. From the Robert Lang dagger against the Red Wings in 2007 to being upset by the eight-seeded Ducks as President's Trophy winners to qualifying for back-to-back Conference Finals only to be eliminated in short order, not a whole lot has gone right for the Sharks in spring.
It's only been three games but it's safe to say their playoff fortunes look to be completely reversed in 2013. This time, it's their opponent's dressing room facing questions about leadership and coaching and contemplating the prospect of an early summer while the Sharks' dressing room features quotes like this one being thrown around by their captain. The San Jose Sharks took a 3-0 lead in their first-round series against the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night and it's difficult to overstate the importance of this moment in the franchise's 22-year history.
No one in their right hockey mind expected this series to be an easy one for either club. Heading into this matchup, the consensus was that if the Sharks or Canucks held an edge over the other, it was razor-thin. That was largely the case in Games 1 and 2 in Vancouver, where the Canucks had the better of the territorial play but struggled to turn their possession advantage into offensive opportunities, while their defense was comparatively a bit more passive in allowing San Jose to set up shop. Still, despite the ultimate results tilting in the Sharks' favor, both contests were as close as it gets in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Tonight's game? Not so much. If they had drawn it up (which they quite possibly did), the Sharks couldn't have executed a better gameplan to own Vancouver. Goad the Canucks into the types of childish penalties they've displayed a penchant for over the years? Check. Score repeatedly on the resulting power plays? Check. Sic Logan Couture, in the midst of a career-defining playoff game, on the Sedin twins at even-strength and have him shut down Vancouver's only real offensive threats? Check. And mate.
Despite a shaky start to the game that included having to kill off a 4-on-3 power play, the Sharks waded into the Game 3 waters and drew first blood with Joe Pavelski cashing in on a 5-on-3 late in the first period. Pavelski, in an effort to once and for all establish that he is indeed a better right-shooting American center than his opposite number Ryan Kesler, scored again for the Sharks seven minutes into a second period that the Sharks absolutely dominated, generating nine scoring chances to the Canucks' one. Unfortunately, Vancouver's lone opportunity was an Alex Burrows strong-side one-timer that beat Antti Niemi midway through the hockey game.
So the teams began the third period right where we'd expect them to be; tightly knit on the scoreboard with the potential for a bounce at either end to drastically change things. While the Sharks entered the period on a power play courtesy Jannik Hansen hauling Joe Thornton down on a breakaway, they were largely countered at the offensive blue line by Vancouver's penalty kill and unable to efficiently gain the zone and set up their attack. But with five seconds remaining on the man-advantage, Logan Couture threw a seemingly weak shot on net from the half-wall that beat Cory Schneider. Nine seconds later, Patrick Marleau came through in the playoffs as he has throughout his career, stoking the Sharks to a 4-1 lead on a five-hole bullet while falling and the rout was officially on.
On some level, it's difficult not to feel sympathy towards a Canucks franchise that's endured the postseason torment the Sharks have, only for even longer. And then a Ryan Kesler dive or Maxim Lapierre crosscheck happens and you feel less guilty about the immense potential for schadenfreude provided by this series. Henrik and Daniel have combined for just four points over three games. Kevin Bieksa has been on the ice for each of the Sharks' last five even-strength goals. And then of course there was the newest goaltending controversy the organization decided to concoct; Roberto Luongo, who was excellent in Games 1 and 2, rode the pine in favor of the body-injured Cory Schneider. Vancouver's woes ran a lot deeper than in net tonight but Schneider certainly wasn't good and it will be fascinating to see if Alain Vigneault goes with the guy who's quite likely the superior goalie right now in Luongo or the guy who's clearly the anointed No. 1 for the next decade in Schneider. It might be one of the last decisions Vigneault makes behind the Canucks' bench.
Expect to hear and read a lot over the next day and change about how the fourth win in a series is the hardest to earn. Like most cliches, this one has a whack of truth to it as anyone who was around the last time the Sharks took a 3-0 lead in a playoff series can most certainly attest. This is still a very good Canucks team when disciplined and San Jose will have their hands full on Tuesday night. Still, moments this perfect have come around so infrequently in this franchise's postseason history that they deserve to be savored.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Logan Couture
2nd Star: Joe Pavelski
3rd Star: Patrick Marleau