Both the Sharks and the Predators just completed the best regular season in franchise history. The clubs won 51 games apiece, more than anybody except league-leading Buffalo, and finished three points apart in the tough Western Conference.
Nashville was third in the overall league standings with 110 points, while San Jose came in fifth with 107. Both clubs have been building to this season through years of patient development – but both made big sacrifices to maximize their chances for a Stanley Cup this season, giving up portions of their future to land veteran forwards Peter Forsberg in Nashville and Bill Guerin in San Jose.
But because the Sharks and the Predators play in the loaded West – home to five of the NHL’s top six overall clubs – they’re stuck in the middle seeds with a rematch of last season’s first-round series. After splitting the first two games in Nashville this year, the clubs play Game 3 in San Jose on Monday night.
“It’s emotional because there’s a lot on the line for both teams,” said Guerin, acquired by San Jose from St. Louis for the final six weeks of the regular season. “I think both teams really believe they have a chance, so things are heated, things are emotional. It’s got everything for a really great series.”
The first two games were appropriately tense: a double-overtime thriller in the opener, and the fight-scarred Game 2. The clubs have combined for 186 penalty minutes so far, with each accusing the other of dirty play and underhanded tactics.
Sharks forward Steve Bernier is unlikely to play in Game 3 after being run into the boards from behind by Predators rookie Alexander Radulov, whose resulting one-game suspension was decried by coach Barry Trotz and general manager David Poile.
But San Jose coach Ron Wilson thought the suspension wasn’t long enough for a blind-side hit that might have sidelined a key forward for the series. Wilson and Trotz also traded barbs through the media, each shaping the series in his own fashion.
Everybody seems a bit uptight – and that animosity is only likely to increase in the next two games in front of San Jose’s frenzied sellout crowds.
“It’s going to be tough going down there,” said Forsberg, who scored two goals in Game 2. “They are going to have their crowd, and it’s going to be a little tougher than (Nashville). We definitely have to play better than we did (in Game 2) if we are going to beat them down there.”
When the screaming stops, the team that loses this first-round matchup will be in for an off-season of second guessing and disappointment – and possibly wholesale changes.
Nashville’s top brass has made no secret of its expectations for a strong playoff run this spring, loading up on talent – particularly at centre after San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau manhandled the Predators last spring.
The Predators were one of the NHL’s top clubs even before adding Forsberg in a trade with Philadelphia, but Nashville still has difficulty drawing big home crowds to watch a sport that’s foreign to many in Tennessee. As Tampa Bay and Carolina learned during the last two seasons, there’s nothing like a long playoff run to get Southerners excited about hockey.
And after eight seasons as the only coach in Predators history, Trotz’s future could be in the balance against the Sharks. Nashville still hasn’t won a playoff series under Trotz, whose contract is up after the season unless Poile exercises the club’s option – something the GM said he won’t consider until after the season.
The consequences could be only slightly less dire for the Sharks, who believe they’ve finally struck a solid balance between their wealth of youthful prospects and a series of veteran additions over the last year. But they won’t know for sure unless they get past Nashville.
Thornton and Marleau got reinforcements in the last year following the Sharks’ second-round loss to Edmonton, when their inexperienced roster appeared to deflate after taking a two-game lead over the Oilers.
General manager Doug Wilson landed forwards Mike Grier, Curtis Brown, Mark Bell and Guerin and defenceman Craig Rivet – all veterans with a track record of success outside San Jose. After years of patiently developing his own players, Wilson signed a group of skaters near 30 or older to add experience and playoff toughness.
“Both teams have addressed issues that prevented them from advancing farther last year,” Ron Wilson said. “We’re a totally different team now. We have a different kind of leadership. That will maybe make us a little more resilient in the playoffs.”