Talk about a tough act to follow.
The Blues and Stars put on a Game 7 spectacular Tuesday night, with the victor decided in double overtime when hometown boy Patrick Maroon potted the winner after Robert Thomas beat Dallas goaltender Ben Bishop but drew iron. The tally, one that nearly blew the roof off of the Enterprise Center, ended the nearly four-hour contest, putting St. Louis through to the Western Conference final.
That’s what the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche have to live up to Wednesday night. The Game 7, which comes on the heels of the two teams trading wins throughout the series, pits one of the pre-playoff Stanley Cup favorite, the Sharks, against a wild-card group in the Avalanche that stunned the top-seeded Calgary Flames in the opening round, and victory will send one team on to the Western Conference final and eight wins away from capturing the Stanley Cup.
Here are five storylines to keep an eye on as we prepare for the final game of the second round:
WHICH JONES SHOWS UP?
He’s only played 13 games, but it’s been a tale of two post-seasons for Martin Jones. The Sharks starting netminder began the playoff run much like he ended the regular season: subpar and shaky. Through the opening games of the first round tilt with the Vegas Golden Knights, Jones was abysmal. He was pulled twice, allowed 13 goals against on 80 shots and was sporting a disastrous .838 save percentage. Ugly, ugly stuff.
But a switch flipped in Game 5 of the first round and the fabled Playoff Martin Jones showed up. Through the final three games against Vegas, Jones surrendered just seven goals on 129 shots, good for a .946 SP, and he’s carried that through into the second round against Avalanche, where he’s allowed 14 goals against on 161 shots and has posted a .913 SP through six games. That brings him to a .928 SP over his past nine games, a significant and much-needed improvement from his early post-season play.
In a one-off that will see one team advance and the other go home, though, Jones has to keep it rolling in the Sharks crease. San Jose cannot afford for Regular Season Martin Jones to be the netminder who takes the blue paint Wednesday night. If he does and the Avalanche get a couple early, the Sharks’ perceived pre-playoff Achilles heel will be the exact thing that takes them down.
No matter how this post-season ends, Nathan MacKinnon has forever altered the appreciation of his tremendous ability. He has been exceptional for the Avalanche, leading the charge with six goals and 13 points in 11 games, not to mention an average ice time deserving of a double take. He’s skated 23:58 per game. That’s an average of only 23 seconds fewer than Tyson Barrie, who is the team leader and also a defenseman. How heavily MacKinnon has been leaned on, and how well he has performed in those minutes, has been bonkers.
Over the past two games, however, MacKinnon has been held off the scoresheet and had one of his least effective outings of the playoff when he mustered a mere one-shot performance in Game 5. Chalk that up to MacKinnon getting a steady dose of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns, who have been the Avalanche star’s shadow for much of the series.
In Game 7, MacKinnon is going to need to break through for the Avalanche. Colorado stands its best chance at moving on if he can make his mark on Wednesday’s proceedings. And you can bet on MacKinnon getting his chance, because with the way his ice time is trending, he might not leave the ice all night.
Look, he’s no Justin Williams, who has earned the ‘Mr. Game 7’ moniker with his past performances and penchant for coming out on the winning side of series-deciding outings, but Logan Couture sure has shown up when the Sharks’ season has been on the line in a do-or-die seventh game.
Playing in five such games in his career, Couture has five goals, six points and 18 shots, and he’s been especially productive in the past two Game 7s in which he’s played. Of course, few will forget it was he who sparked the Sharks’ comeback against the Golden Knights with two goals on the five-minute power play that saved San Jose’s season, but who recalls his Game 7 performance against the Nashville Predators in the second round of the 2016 playoffs? With a chance to advance to the Western Conference final on the line – sound familiar? – Couture scored early in the second frame, assisted on a Joe Thornton power play goal less than a minute into the third and capped the night with an assist on Patrick Marleau’s marker minutes later.
Couture has come up big all post-season and leads all scorers with nine goals and 14 points. Game 7 is yet another opportunity for him to add to his growing post-season legacy. And chances are he’ll factor into Wednesday’s game one way or another.
On paper, the Sharks have a decided edge in depth. Beyond Couture, Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier, San Jose can throw Thornton, Evander Kane, Gustav Nyquist and Kevin Labanc over the boards. That’s not to mention of the offensive capabilities of Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, both of whom can produce on the attack at the drop of a hat. In this series, though, Colorado’s role players have stepped up and made a much greater impact than expected.
To wit, the Sharks have received three goals and 13 points from forwards other than Couture, Hertl and Meier. Meanwhile, the Avalanche have been helped along by seven goals and 16 points from players not named MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen or Gabriel Landeskog. By that measure, it’s actually been Colorado’s depth forwards that have made the bigger difference in the series, with no one picking a better time to step up than J.T. Compher, who had two goals and three points in the Avalanche’s Game 6 victory.
Colorado is going to need more of that from their middle- and bottom-sixers in Game 7, too. Who steps up? Well, Carl Soderberg and Alex Kerfoot, who finished fourth and fifth in scoring among Avalanche forwards during the regular season, have been relatively quiet in Round 2. There is no better time for them to make noise than in Game 7.
‘LITTLE JOE’ A GO?
Joe Pavelski hasn’t suited up since Game 7 of the opening round, when a fluke play off of a faceoff sent him crashing to the ice and resulted in a gruesome head injury that left Pavelski bleeding on the ice. The five-minute major that was meted out as a result of the Cody Eakin crosscheck that started the chain reaction – a penalty which he himself said shouldn’t have been a major – set off a comeback for the ages. And while that allowed San Jose to keep their season alive, it has also left the Sharks without their captain for the entire series.
But that could change Wednesday night. Though there’s some well-warranted skepticism about his ability to return for Game 7 or whether it’s simply a tactic by the Sharks coaching staff, Pavelski is listed as a game-time decision and there’s a chance – however slim – he could suit up Wednesday.
Even if he doesn’t play, though, Pavelski’s injury has been a rallying point for the Sharks and his presence around the team will serve as an inspiration whether he pulls the familiar No. 8 over his head or not.
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