“We’re not going to beat that team,” was a common lament. Evgeni Nabokov stopped all 34 shots he faced, his teammates blocked 18, and Matt Carle and Mike Grier supplied first-period goals 24 seconds apart in a 2-0 San Jose victory in the opener of the NHL Western Conference semifinal series. The Sharks also had the superior special teams in going 1-for-1 on the power play and negating all three Detroit chances.
Did we mention giveaways? Detroit had 18 and San Jose just five.
Game 2 is Saturday and Detroit will have to get much more from players such as Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Robert Lang if it is to make a series out of this.
“We played a smart game and that was the key,” Nabokov said after improving to 5-1 in this spring’s playoffs.
The 31-year-old Kazakh has been on a roll for the last two months.
“He did a great job fighting through the point shots and the deflections and things like that,” said Grier. “He was huge for us.”
Nabokov made two huge leg saves in the second minute to deny Detroit the early lead and was sharp throughout.
“He made big save after big save,” said Grier. “We’re thrilled with the way he’s playing right now.”
Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom was serving a hooking penalty, the only penalty of the opening period, when Carle slammed a cross-crease Joe Thornton pass into the open side of the net at 9:45.
“It was bing-bang-boom and it was in the back of the net,” said Thornton.
Grier connected at 10:09. He was in the middle of Detroit’s zone when a loose pick slid his way with Mathieu Schneider preparing to check him. Grier, with his back to the net at first, spun quickly and smashed a low shot past Dominik Hasek.
“To get the early lead is a huge thing on the road,” Carle said afterwards. “We just rolled from there.”
Thornton said the goals deflated the normally boisterous Joe Louis Arena crowd.
“We got the crowd right out of the game,” said Thornton.
Detroit regrouped and stopped San Jose’s momentum.
Three penalties were assessed in the second period, and all of them were against San Jose, but Detroit couldn’t score.
Grier and Curtis Brown are San Jose’s primary penalty killers up front. Scott Hannan, Craig Rivet and rookie Marc-Edouard Vlasic take good care of the back end when their team is short a man.
“Our penalty killers did a great job,” said Nabokov. “(The Wings) were coming hard.”
The Sharks concentrated on checking in the third. By the end, Detroit had a 34-19 shots advantage, but the numbers were deceiving. After getting their two-goal lead, San Jose never appeared in danger of losing the game – not the way Nabokov was playing and the way his teammates were blocking shots.
“The guys really beared down in the last five minutes,” said Carle.
“Our young guys rose to the occasion on defence and it was a pretty good job of defending a very dangerous team,” said Sharks coach Ron Wilson.
It was a frustrating night for the Red Wings.
“I thought we played them well once we settled down,” said Lidstrom. “They got the first two goals then didn’t really come at us as hard after that.
“We have to put this one behind us and be ready for Game 2. We know we have to come out with a stronger effort, especially in the first period.”
Of the 18 blocked shots, Kyle McLaren led the way with five.
“You’ve got Lidstrom and Schneider back there and they’re probably two of the better guys in the league in getting their shots through and scoring goals from the point so going into the series we knew we were going to have to try to get into the shooting lanes and block some shots,” said Grier.
San Jose had the NHL’s best road record during the regular season and continues to revel in the trips. Having a physically big team helps, says Wilson.
“In some buildings you can be a little intimidated and that’s not going to happen to our team,” says Wilson. “We’re too big, we’re too rugged.
“We’re that way right through the lineup.”
Added Carle: “We’ve been a great road team all year. As much as we love the fans at home in San Jose it’s always great to play on the road. We just seem to get the job done.”
Detroit got few second or third shots on its rushes.
“We didn’t get enough traffic and second opportunities,” said coach Mike Babcock.
They didn’t have many odd-man rushes either.
“In games like this, it’s a key when you don’t have breakaways and 2-on-1s to contend with,” said Nabokov. “We played a strong positional game.”
Getting goals from players other than stars Thornton, Jonathan Cheechoo, Patrick Marleau and Milan Michalek has become a San Jose trait.
“When some lines get shut down, we always have some other guys who show up,” said Nabokov. “That’s a sign of a good team.”
Lidstrom certainly was impressed.
“They played really well, especially in the neutral zone,” he said. “Instead of taking a chance, they were laying the puck deep in our zone all the time.
“We have to pick the pace up to create more chances in the neutral zone, and we have to have quicker puck movement and get quicker shots. You don’t have to look for the big slap shot all the time.”
Notes: As tradition demands in Detroit, an octopus was tossed onto the ice in the visiting team’s end just before the end of the anthem . . . While San Jose skaters blocked 18 shots, Detroit blocked only one . . . Detroit was without F Tomas Holmstrom (left eye) and D Brett Lebda (mild concussion/sprained ankle) . . . Detroit D Chris Chelios appeared in the 235th playoff game. Only Mark Messier (236) and Patrick Roy (247) played more . . . The Red Wings didn’t sell out Thursday, and haven’t had capacity crowds for any of their first four home playoff games in the 20,066 Joe Louis Arena. Michigan’s economy, stung by auto industry woes, ranks 50th among the 50 U.S. states . . . Bill Guerin is the only Shark with a Stanley Cup ring. Ten Red Wings have rings . . . Vlasic is a brand of pickles in the United States, which is why Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been nicknamed “Pickles” by his teammates . . . Lidstrom turns 37 on Saturday.