The Predators are terribly strong, too, yet Mike Grier and the Sharks physically punished them again. Nashville was among the NHL’s best clubs throughout the regular season – but now the Predators are on the brink of elimination after San Jose once again did everything better.
Michalek scored two goals, Evgeni Nabokov made 23 saves and the Sharks took a commanding lead in their first-round playoff series with a 3-2 victory over the Predators in Game 4 on Wednesday night.
San Jose went up 3-1 in the series with another exhibition of speed, physical play and stellar goaltending – everything the stunned Predators did so well during an excellent season that could be over Friday night.
“Both teams are really good, and we like to play the same way,” said Michalek, who has four goals in four games against Nashville. “We got the lead, and then we just played our game. We’re doing a lot of things the right way.”
Rookie Joe Pavelski also scored his first playoff goal for the Sharks, and Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo had two assists apiece. Grier and Curtis Brown were just as important killing penalties and making life miserable for the Predators’ vaunted offensive talent.
Game 5 in the best-of-seven series is Friday in Nashville, where the Sharks will attempt to close out the Predators in five games for the second straight spring.
“Definitely, there was some misfortune for us today,” said Tomas Vokoun, who made 20 saves for Nashville. “I thought it was a pretty even game. They just got the breaks. … (Our) puck bounces on the goal line and doesn’t go in. They throw the puck in from the back of the net, it hits a skate and goes in.”
Jason Arnott scored his first goal of the series for the frustrated Predators, who are winless in seven road playoff games in franchise history. Scott Hartnell scored with 2:52 left when the Predators pulled Vokoun for a 6-on-4 power play, but the Sharks coolly finished the final minutes without much trouble.
Nashville, which finished third overall in the regular season, hasn’t won in its last 10 trips to the Shark Tank. With a two-goal deficit in the third period, the Predators were forced into a desperate, gambling game – hardly the strength of a veteran club.
“Some of our passes, we tried to push something that wasn’t there,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “Sometimes you try to hit the home run when you need to hit a bunch of singles. Once we got that reeled in, we were all right again.”
Left wing Martin Erat was scratched from the Preds’ lineup after injuring his right leg in Game 3, but rookie forward Alexander Radulov returned after missing the last game under suspension. None of it helped Nashville’s forwards create trouble for San Jose.
Nabokov kept the Sharks comfortable with another outstanding performance, even though San Jose’s once-dominant power play went 0-for-5 to drop to 1-for-23 in the series. The Sharks’ 5-on-5 play was good enough to make up for it – though not without some tense moments late.
“In the third period, I thought we were even better,” Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. “I don’t think they even had a chance until the last power play. These games, they seem like they last for six or seven hours when you’re coaching.”
The clubs traded punches while splitting the first two games between two of the NHL’s top five regular-season finishers in Nashville. San Jose took the series lead with a dominant physical performance Monday night at the Shark Tank.
Nashville was more aggressive to start Game 4, but San Jose took the lead just 3½ minutes in when Michalek converted Thornton’s pass from behind the net. The young Czech winger has thrived alongside Cheechoo and Thornton recently, scoring 22 points in his last 16 regular-season games – and he’s been a nightmare for Nashville.
After Pavelski and Arnott traded goals 86 seconds apart, the Sharks reclaimed their two-goal lead in the second period moments after a power play ended. Michalek drove the net to deflect the puck off Kimmo Timonen’s skate and underneath Vokoun.
Nashville’s power play has been just as inept as the Sharks’ unit, falling to 2-for-18 in the series – and it missed a prime scoring opportunity late in the second period when Scott Hannan used his skate to keep a bouncing puck from finding the net behind Nabokov.
San Jose clamped down defensively in the third period, holding the Predators without a shot until just five minutes remained. Hartnell forced in a goal through a pile of players.
Notes: Thornton received a nasty cut over his eye during the final minute of play. … Paul Kariya hasn’t scored a goal in four games for Nashville, and Bill Guerin hasn’t found the net for San Jose. … NHL commissioner Gary Bettman attended the game and expressed cautious optimism for the sport’s television ratings during the post-season.