Two late goals changed both clubs’ post-season course, and it’s a pity. After this bruising regular-season finale for San Jose, only a rematch could have been more exciting than a game that decided two division titles.
Mattias Ohlund scored a power-play goal 34 seconds into overtime, and the Canucks clinched the Northwest Division title with a 4-3 victory Saturday. They’ll start the playoffs at home against Dallas.
Roberto Luongo made 27 saves in his 47th win for the Canucks, who also clinched the Pacific Division title for the Anaheim Ducks by ending San Jose’s five-game winning streak. The Sharks began the day two points behind Anaheim for the division crown and the No. 2 seed in the playoffs – and if the Canucks had won in regulation, they might have faced San Jose.
Thornton had a goal and two assists for San Jose, assisting on Jonathan Cheechoo’s tying goal with 32 seconds left in regulation – but last season’s MVP finished his 114-point season in the penalty box after a tripping call. Ohlund’s shot from the point glanced off Curtis Brown’s stick and found an improbable angle into the net behind goalie Evgeni Nabokov.
Thornton really got the Canucks’ attention with 5:06 to play when he lowered his shoulder and ran Cooke into the boards, possibly breaking his own nose in the process.
“Any time someone hits you from behind, it’s not the best,” said Cooke, who wasn’t hurt on the play. “If that’s the way he wants to play, fine.
“He’s six-(foot)-five and 210 pounds. I have no respect for him. Fair is fair, but when you see the numbers . . . You teach the kids not to hit (that way). You can’t have superstars out there doing that.”
Both players hit the end of the rink forcefully, and Thornton was bent over in pain as he went to the locker room. Thornton returned to the bench moments later, but couldn’t speak to reporters after the game while getting treatment on his nose.
“I think if it’s any other guy in the league, you have to call a major (penalty),” Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said. “But Thornton is an all-star player, and obviously he gets a lot of leeway, and he gets a lot of decisions going his way.”
Cooke and Taylor Pyatt scored first-period goals for the Canucks, but Milan Michalek and Thornton tied it with power-play goals in the second. Kevin Bieksa scored his first goal in 15 games early in the third period for a 3-2 lead, but Cheechoo tied it while Nabokov – who made 26 saves – was pulled for an extra attacker.
Sharks coach Ron Wilson saw nothing wrong with Thornton’s aggressive play, noting the Canucks’ defensive game plan included a few questionable hits.
“We’ve got our best player playing mean, big, strong and not taking any prisoners,” Wilson said. “There’s hell to pay when Joe is running and hitting.
“You want to touch him, you’re going to pay a price. It’s not about getting back at Matt Cooke or (Alex) Burrows or any one of those little agitators. If they’re going to hit Joe and Jonathan Cheechoo, we have to hit the skill people on the other team equally as hard.”
Ohlund’s goal ended San Jose’s seven-game home winning streak and forced the Sharks to open the post-season on the road despite a franchise-record, 107-point regular season and a conference-leading 51 victories.
By earning one point, San Jose clinched the No. 5 seed in the playoffs against Nashville, its first-round opponent last season. Dallas, which finishes its regular season against Chicago on Sunday, has 105 points but would lose a tiebreaker with San Jose on total victories.
“They’re a tough team with a lot of speed, a lot of skill,” Sharks defenceman Scott Hannan said. “We’ll start on the road, but we’ll do what we’ve got to do.
“We’ll do what it takes. That was the plan all along.”
The Canucks, who finish their regular season Sunday in Phoenix, needed just one win to hold off Minnesota for the division title. Vancouver is the only opponent to win at the Shark Tank since February, doing it twice in overtime.
Luongo is headed to his first post-season after the winningest season in history for a Canucks goalie. He broke the franchise record for wins in Vancouver’s last trip to San Jose, and this victory tied Bernie Parent’s long-standing, NHL single-season record of 47 wins – though it already was surpassed by New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur earlier in the week.
“It was one of the most intense games I’ve played all year,” Luongo said. “You could feel it in the air.”
Notes: The Sharks played without forward Bill Guerin, who sat out for the third time in four games to rest his strained groin for the playoffs . . . The Sharks finished the regular season with 27 consecutive sellout crowds.