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Sharks 3, Predators 5: Playoff atmosphere breaks Sharks’ point streak

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Despite exceptional play from the Sharks, Juuse Saros prevented San Jose from salvaging a win.

Mar 29, 2018; Nashville, TN, USA; Nashville Predators left wing Filip Forsberg (9) and San Jose Sharks center Chris Tierney (50) on the ice battling for a loose puck during the second period at Bridgestone Arena. Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

In what could easily be a Western Conference Final preview, the San Jose Sharks came out to play tonight and brought their A-game to the Music City. They needed to, as they were up against the top team in the league.

After getting some advice from his favorite blender, Pete DeBoer started the night off with Chris Tierney on the top line with Evander Kane and Joe Pavelski, Timo Meier on the second line with Logan Couture and Mikkel Boedker, Tomas Hertl centering Melker Karlsson and Kevin Labanc on the third, and Joel Ward centering Marcus Sorensen and Jannik Hansen, while Barclay Goodrow, Eric Fehr, Joonas Donskoi, and Joe Thornton all dealt with ailments. The moves turned out to work surprisingly well, as Tierney and Hertl — the two most notable switches — both looked great in their new roles on their new lines. It’s possible we’ll see these combinations against the Golden Knights on Saturday, as well.

The first period saw a flurry of chances and scoring through the first twelve minutes. A little after five minutes of play, Kyle Turris struck first for Nashville off a Martin Jones kick save from a booming PK Subban slapshot. Nothing Jones could do there, as the puck landed right on Turris’s tape, who then deposited the puck into the open net as quickly as it came on his stick.

Logan Couture showed no signs of a birthday hangover when he tied things up shortly thereafter off a terrific one-touch pass from Brent Burns. Couture fired the puck past Saros, who was screened by Evander Kane, after receiving the puck in the slot in the middle of the ice.

Couture has undoubtedly been the Sharks’ most consistent forward this year, in a season when so many forwards have taken strides and have had impressive campaigns of their own.

Back and forth they went, and Kane, for as well as he’s played since his arrival, failed to chip the puck up the boards and instead tried passing cross-ice as he was still in the defensive zone. The puck ended up on Filip Forsberg’s stick, who then passed it to a wide-open Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson parked in front of Jones before they executed the Nashville two-on-none for the go-ahead goal.

On the next shift, the Sharks’ fourth line got things going on the offensive zone, and Brenden Dillon fired a shot from the point with lots of traffic in front of the net to tie things up for a second time in the period at two.

The goal was Dillon’s ninth point in his last ten games, including his fourth goal. Nice to see him heating up, and I never thought I’d be saying this, but the Sharks have themselves a hell of a D-man on their bottom pairing.

The teams exchanged interference penalties thirty seconds apart later in the period, with both teams failing to score on their abbreviated power plays and on the 4-on-4 in between. Both teams played exceptionally well in the first period, and the tied score reflected that, but the Sharks were just slightly the better team, with more quality opportunities after twenty minutes of play.

The teams traded chances in a less wide-open second frame and the Sharks killed off a 5-on-3 before Ryan Johansen took a penalty on the Preds’ power play to prevent a Joe Pavelski breakaway in the neutral zone off a broken-up pass. After Martin Jones saved a grade-A scoring chance off a rush from the brief 4-on-4, the Sharks started to really dominate chances in the game.

Jannik Hansen had his bid to break up the tie off a terrific backhand pass from Marcus Sorensen — who’s made a very strong case for himself to remain in the lineup with the way he’s played in the opportunities he’s been given — from behind the Nashville trapezoid saved by Saros.

But it was the Predatorials who went up 3-2 when Craig Smith fired one past Jones who had two Predators parked right out in front of him with no Shark around. In fact, they were so close to Jones that DeBoer decided to test the NHL’s updated goalie interference policy of consulting with a ref from the situation room in Toronto with a challenge to see if there was sufficient contact to overturn the call, which evidently there was not.

But the Sharks responded in kind, as they did all night, with a terrific response.

Burns almost cashed in to tie the game when he had his shot from the point tipped by Tierney go off the post. The refs saw to this response though, as they called Burns first for a hold on Arvidsson as the two got tangled up skating towards the boards (after Arvidsson tripped Burns to cause said entanglement), and then kept their whistles in their pockets when Forsberg tackled Tierney to the ice on the ensuing Nashville power play.

Fortunately for the Sharks, Craig Smith also had his shot go off the crossbar as the Predators failed to extend their lead on the power play. Unfortunately for the Sharks, Burns had his shot off a turnover in the Nashville zone from a terrific 2-on-1 pass from Ward spectacularly saved by the stick of Saros and then off the crossbar as the Nashville netminder stretched out wide and made a case for Save of the Year.

The Sharks battled through the series of frustrating calls/non-calls and Saros saves by grinding out a power play opportunity on the next shift. While they got plenty of zone-time, they failed to generate a grade-A chances this time around. The moment the man-advantage ended though, Pavelski missed just high on one and had a second chance saved by Saros.

The Sharks were called for a tripping penalty on Melker Karlsson to end the period, and Tierney, who had himself a whale of a game, made a terrific play despite being pressured by three yellow-shirts to clear the puck out of the Sharks’ zone to keep things at 3-2 Nashville after forty.

The third period started with San Jose killing off the carry-over minute of the Karlsson minor and then going back on the power play when Nashville got caught for too many men on the ice. As they did on their two abbreviated power plays earlier in the game, San Jose got a plethora of chances and looked dangerous on their fourth man-advantage opportunity of the evening. Saros was truly the difference in preventing the game from being tied then and there. When the Sharks got a fifth power play opportunity, it was Saros.

It was Saros. Save. After save. After save. After SAVE.

Juuse Saros — the top rookie goalie in the NHL this year, despite his relatively smaller body for a goalie at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds — absolutely stood on his head all game long and especially in that sequence there.

But Mikkel Boedker, fresh off of taking exception to my critical analysis of him going on an ice-cold streak Tuesday night, showed tremendous patience with about 21 people parked in front of Saros before finding a spot and firing one that Saros got a piece of but just squeaked by into the back of the net to tie things up for San Jose just as their second power of the period expired.

Finally, indeed.

But Saros didn’t let the goal faze him, as he robbed Sorensen of a breakaway bid for a goal, and despite the exceptional shift from the Sharks’ young Swede, the Predators followed up their next shift with a goal to put them up 4-3.

Ryan Ellis put one past Jones who, for his absolutely exceptional play this season particularly in its second half, failed to match Saros’s exceptional play the other end in a play where the Shark players on the ice were all in relatively decent position. He’ll want that one back. The goal though served as a good reminder for the Sharks as they prepare for the playoffs that Nashville has three Norris-worthy D-men that they need to account for in PK Subban, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis, particularly if the latter didn’t have the injury-ridden season he has.

But the Sharks responded for a fourth time. Kane put a booming hit on Forsberg in the Sharks’ defensive zone, skating at him at about 62 miles an hour, and Burns put a shot just wide of the net off a patient Pavelski pass.

Saros then unbelievably made yet another incredible save on another breakaway chance by Sorensen. Late in the game though, the zebras decided to call it quits on making calls, particularly when Subban prevented a Kane breakaway to the net by holding him in every sense of the word in a hockey context, but were forced to make a call late, as Subban lifted one out of play into the stands from the Nashville defensive zone.

On their third straight power play — indicative of their dominating play rather than a result of generous calls or something of that sort — the Sharks again ran into the brick wall named Saros.

DeBoer had enough of that show and pulled his goaltender with just over two minutes left to go up 6-on-4 to change that, and the Sharks came oh, so close to tying the game when the Predators knocked their net out of its moorings, resulting in a penalty shot for the Sharks due to the little time left on the game clock, which Logan Couture would take.

Unfortunately for team teal, Saros got the best of Logan’s attempt to slip one by five-hole. Though the Sharks still had time left from the Subban minor, they couldn’t tie things up, despite getting their chances before things went 6-on-5.

With just half a minute left, Timo Meier made a gorgeous move in front of Saros to get the puck on his backhand for an empty-net shot that only just hit the outside of the post instead of the back of the Nashville net for San Jose’s final chance. Nick Bonino, after a Burns pinch, sealed the Nashville win with an empty netter with 17 seconds remaining.

The Sharks (44-24-10) look to formally clinch on Saturday, as they finish their final road trip of the season against their newest division rival in Vegas.

Notes:

  • This was an absolutely thrilling game. If a friend ever asks you about hockey, show them the tape of this game. The drama... the action... oh my, oh my, oh my. If you missed this one, you need to catch the DVR recording, even if you already know the score. The highlights are the next best thing but they won’t do it justice.
  • Make no mistake — if the Sharks are able to keep up that level of play in the post-season, hyperbole aside, there’s a very good chance that we’re looking at a Sharks parade in downtown San Jose this June.
  • When Randy Hahn said “Two of the best defensemen in the NHL go at it tonight!’ in the pre-game, I legitimately thought he was talking about Roman Josi and Marc-Edouard Vlasic before they showed Brent Burns and PK Subban on the screen.
  • Kevin Labanc’s been receiving some flack lately, but he played just fine tonight and created some chances out of nothing with his stick-handling and patience with the puck. On the other hand, there were definitely some growing pains with fumbling passes and a few turnovers, but those are to be expected. It’ll be interesting to see how Pete DeBoer’s blender shapes the lineup if-and-when the four Shark forwards get healthy down the stretch.
  • To the Nashville person in charge of designating the three stars of the game: Saros is the third star? You had one job. ONE. JOB.
  • It’ll be obvious to anyone watching the Sharks’ play as to why newly-signed Sharks prospect Dylan Gambrell hasn’t cracked the lineup yet. Who do you take out if you’re Pete DeBoer? To a man, the Sharks have all been playing not just hard hockey, but great hockey. The only way I see Gambrell getting at least a game in is if DeBoer decides to rest up a player before the playoffs — which, by the way, he definitely should. After tonight, they’ve earned it.