VANCOUVER – The San Jose Sharks’ legs didn’t let them down after a taxing seven-game series against Detroit.
The trouble started in their heads late in the second period of a 3-2 loss Sunday to the Vancouver Canucks in the opener of the Western Conference final.
“There’s nights when we lose our legs but our minds are still pretty sharp,” said Sharks coach Todd McLellan. “I didn’t think that was the case tonight. It started between the ears and it went all the way through the body.
“We were like dogs chasing cars on the freeway. We weren’t catching anybody. We put the pucks into very poor spots.”
The Sharks had parlayed goals by Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau into a 2-1 lead late in the second period when the Canucks stormed their net.
There was a two-minute flurry around goalie Antti Niemi, who got his right pad on three whacks at the puck by Ryan Kesler and Chris Higgins.
The siege continued as Jannik Hansen was foiled by Niemi’s left pad while all alone in front of the overworked netminder who eventually faced 38 shots.
The Canucks carried that momentum into the third period where the Sharks’ vulnerability continued this post-season.
They had third-period leads in their last four conference semifinal games against the Red Wings and lost three of them.
A defensive breakdown allowed Kevin Bieksa to snap a shot past Niemi while trailing the play.
Henrik Sedin’s power-play goal won the game one minute 19 seconds later after Dany Heatley got an elbow up on Canuck grinder Raffi Torres.
Maxim Lapierre gave Vancouver a 1-1 tie with his first goal of the playoffs. The series continues Wednesday before shifting to San Jose for games Friday and Sunday.
The Canucks pressed the Sharks by getting pucks deep and having the speed to retrieve them for valuable time in the offensive zone.
“They eventually beat us at the type of game we wanted to play,” McLellan said. “They laid it in behind. They won a lot of races, they sustained offensive zone time and they wore us down.
“We’ve got to find a way to get energized as a hockey club and that starts with the mental part of it first.”
While the Canucks had five days off after eliminating the Nashville Predators in six games, Thornton said his club had recovery time despite the drain of the Detroit series.
“There shouldn’t be any (fatigue),” said Thornton who used his reach to intercept a Roberto Luongo clearing attempt and score the first goal of the series.
“We haven’t played since Thursday.”
Marleau scored on the Sharks’ only power play and Thornton said his club has to draw more penalties.
“We’ve just got to recover our legs,” Thornton said. “When we skate we’re a pretty good team, then we draw some penalties.
“They’ve got a good power play. So do we. That’s the bottom line.”
Defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic described the Canucks as a desperate team in the third period, a time when San Jose did not want to play like a team protecting a lead.
“They had to push,” said Vlasic who lost the battle with Kesler along the boards that led to Sedin’s winner. “They threw everything they had at us, going to the net hard, throwing pucks, getting the power play which they scored on.
“You never want to protect (a lead). When you’re on your heels, bad things happen.”
Heatley said the Sharks couldn’t get the puck consistently through the neutral zone to attack Vancouver.
“We weren’t getting it through … a couple of turnovers in the neutral zone,” Heatley said. “Give a team like that with speed some breaks they’re going to score.”
Defenceman Dan Boyle said the Canucks outworked his club, especially in the latter part of the game where they held a 13-7 edge in third-period shots.
“They controlled most of the play all night,” Boyle said. “It just got away from us at the end but they were in our zone way too much.”
NOTES: It was the first time the Canucks were host to the opening game of a conference final … it was the third trip to the conference final for both teams … Vancouver is 2-0 in conference finals, San Jose 0-2 … the Sharks are starting a playoff series on the road for the first time since the 2007 West semifinal.