San Jose Struggles in the Third Period, Falls 3-2 to Vancouver in Game One
It's not how you start, it's how you finish.
The Sharks learned that lesson tonight.
Even with the Finnish phenom doing his best to keep Vancouver from finishing at the end of the second period, you could feel the structural support of a 2-1 lead heading into the third period growing weaker with each passing moment. And in the final frame, with Rogers Arena resembling something far more sinister than the Kenny G concerts San Jose has played in before, the Canucks came alive.
Vancouver outshot San Jose 13-7 in the final frame, notching a pair of goals from Kevin Bieksa and Henrik Sedin respectively, giving them a 1-0 series lead in this best of seven Western Conference Finals series.
Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau added tallies for the Sharks while Maxim Lappiere added a marker for the Canucks.
The game began with all of the intensity you would expect from these two teams-- Joe Thornton and Ryan Kesler both got booted out of the faceoff circle before the opening whistle, setting the stage for what was (and what will be) a high-flying, physical series. The hits were coming left and right throughout the early part of the tilt and it was clear that this type of pace would continue.
San Jose struck first at the 18:47 mark of the opening period. With time clicking down on the clock Roberto Luongo sent an errant outlet pass through the circles to the waiting stick of Joe Thornton. The Sharks Captain ripped a wrist shot at the empty net, evading the outreached pad of Luongo to find twine and give the Sharks a 1-0 lead heading into intermission.
The first period was San Jose's best defensive period of the game. The vaunted Nucks transition game, which went on to get more and more dangerous as the game progressed, was bottled up quite well by the Sharks in the neutral zone. The forwards did an excellent job supporting their defenseman and outdueling Vancouver for loose pucks, allowing the Canucks to cycle along the periphery. That cycle game would go on to cause more issues for San Jose in the latter half of the game, but for those first twenty minutes, the chances were relatively contained.
Vancouver wasted no time evening things up early in the second period however, getting a goal from Scott Nichol's favorite opponent Maxim Lappiere. Sharks netminder Antti Niemi left a grenade for San Jose to clean up when he cleared the puck up the boards to a waiting Raffi Torres (who had a very effective game for Vancouver). Torres quickly sent the puck down to Janik Hansen below the end line, and with Lapierre crashing the net, Niclas Wallin failed to pick up his man. Niemi didn't have a chance on the shot and the Canucks knotted the game at one.
As the second period wore along San Jose managed to get more opportunities in the offensive zone, testing the ever-questioned Roberto Luongo. As the Sharks power play took to the ice in their lone opportunity of the game, the man advantage unit made it count. Patrick Marleau deflected a Dan Boyle wrist shot from the point to put San Jose back in the lead, giving them a one goal cushion heading into the final frame.
That one goal cushion was largely due to the play of Antti Niemi however, who stemmed the tide of a rabid Canucks offensive outburst in the last five minutes of the period. Two sequences-- the first involving a ten second loose puck battle in front of the Sharks net with nearly all ten skaters fighting in the crease, the second a brilliant pad save on Janik Hansen-- allowed the Sharks to hustle into the locker room and prepare for the final frame.
Those last twenty minutes were little to write home about of course, as Vancouver thoroughly dominated San Jose in every conceivable fashion of the game. The Canucks lightning quick transition game, which was contained well by San Jose in the first period, suddenly found their legs and a distinct ability to beat the Sharks blueliners to the punch.
As we mentioned leading into the series, this is a an area where San Jose has struggled with historically. While the Sharks are by no means a team that is filled with plodding players, the team as a whole cannot play the run and gun style that Vancouver will attempt to lure them into this series. That was on full display on the third. Whether it was due to fatigue from a game seven on Thursday against Detroit, or something that highlighted a weakness that hasn't been exposed yet this postseason, the Sharks struggled mightily when battling this sword.
Kevin Bieksa scored the tying goal at the 7:02 mark of the third. As Henrik Sedin made a nice little neutral zone chip to spring the spry Alex Burrows into the offensive zone, Burrows drove hard to the net and kept his head up for the centering pass. Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa jumped into the play wonderfully, taking Burrows' pass cleanly and rifling a shot to the far post that beat Niemi.
A mere 1:19 later Vancouver would strike again.
With Dany Heatley in the box, the Sharks penalty kill (which was once again stellar despite this goal) attempted to kill off their fourth penalty of the night. It wasn't meant to be however, as the long dormant Henrik Sedin received an excellent pass by Christian Ehrhoff in front of the net. It gave Vancouver their first lead of the night, and one that would continue to last as San Jose failed to generate any sustained offensive pressure for the rest of the night.
Something Vancouver did very well in the latter half of this game was chip pucks deep behind San Jose's defenseman and beat them to loose pucks. I thought the Sharks blueliners actually did a fairly good job of restricting puck carriers into the zone throughout the tilt, standing up the speedy Vancouver forwards at the blueline. But when the chip and chase went into full effect, San Jose had little in the way of answers.
Compounded with Vancouver's cycle game, which got better and better as the game went along as well, there is no doubt that Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan will begin the arduous process of tweaking his gameplan to suit his team's strengths. The dump and chase that worked well against Detroit is an effective solution of course, but only if San Jose can generate enough speed in the neutral zone to make that loose puck behind the end line playable. That really was the difference tonight-- Vancouver's ability to take advantage of their speed in the neutral zone when entering the zone, and San Jose's struggles to generate any opportunities due to their lack of skating pop.
Another asset to the Canucks game (this will be tiresome for long-time readers considering we're re-iterating a lot from our previews) is the ability of their blueline to jump into the play and keep pucks alive in the offensive zone. They are a very aggressive team in this regard, and their ability to keep plays alive is something that bogged San Jose down in their own end for extended periods of this game. The Sharks countered by flipping pucks out high into the air and into the neutral zone at times-- the only drawback of this practice is that it tends to result in even more possession time for the opposing team.
San Jose will receive a two day break before playing game two Wednesday night in Vancouver. That break will be instrumental for a team who looked like they were still feeling the effects of a grueling and emotional series against Detroit. The hope here is that they can begin to get their legs back.
As the third period showed tonight, they are going to need them.