SAN JOSE, Calif. – On a team filled with Olympians, all-stars and Stanley Cup winners, it was a rookie who spent more time on planes flying back and forth from the minors than he did on the ice who gave the San Jose Sharks the final point of the season that earned them home-ice advantage.
Logan Couture’s shootout goal in the season finale against Phoenix gave San Jose 113 points for the season—one more than Chicago had at the end of the season.
With the Blackhawks holding the tiebreaker, that point proved to be very crucial as the teams meet in the Western Conference final that will begin in San Jose.
“There were plenty of other shootout goals like that in the regular season, but it just happened to be the last game so everybody thinks it’s that,” Couture said Wednesday. “But it’s pretty cool.”
The Sharks held their first practice Wednesday since finding out their opponent in the conference final and talked about how impressed they were with Chicago’s speed.
The Blackhawks took the day off after clinching their second-round series with a 5-1 win in Vancouver in Game 6. After spending the night in Vancouver, the team flew to the Bay Area and will resume practice on Thursday.
As of now, the teams do not know when they will begin their series. The league is waiting until after the Eastern Conference matchup is set to release the schedule, although most signs point to the Western Conference final starting Friday or Sunday because of a concert at HP Pavilion on Saturday night.
“It’s all right,” forward Patrick Kane said after Tuesday night’s win. “We’ve been on long road trips this year. It almost just seems like another one. We get a couple days (off) here and then we’ll get going again. But we’ve been pretty good all year on the road.”
That’s been especially true in the playoffs, meaning home-ice advantage might not end up being a big factor in this series. Chicago won 23 of 41 road games in the regular season and has been even better in the playoffs,
The Blackhawks won two of three games in Nashville in the first round and all three games in Vancouver in the second round, clinching both series with road wins in Game 6.
“We come to these road games with the right mentality,” captain Jonathan Toews said.
The Sharks have been just as strong at home in the playoffs, winning five straight since losing Game 1 in the first round to Colorado.
They look forward to the extra time in their own beds and the support from a loud crowd that helps make the Shark Tank the most difficult arena in the league, according to a recent survey of NHL players by Sports Illustrated.
“Our fans have been very loud but I think our team has been able to feed off it in a positive way,” captain Rob Blake said. “When you can use that to your advantage, the home ice is an advantage. When you start running around and you’re in the penalty box because you’re so up, that’s when it can hurt you.”
Couture played a key role in keeping San Jose at home this week despite spending much of the season on the Worcester shuttle, taking numerous cross-country flights as he bounced between the NHL and San Jose’s American Hockey League affiliate.
Couture was called up eight times during the season, including once for just a day to play a game against Chicago.
“I flew in the night before and flew out right after the game,” he said. “It does get tiring. It takes a toll on your body going coast to coast.”
The Sharks made the frequent moves with Couture and other rookies like Jamie McGinn and Jason Demers as they tried to manage the salary cap while also making sure they had enough healthy players.
Couture had five goals and four assists in 25 games with the Sharks, while also being picked for the AHL all-rookie team after recording 20 goals and 33 assists in 42 games at Worcester.
He was called up for good on March 16 and had four goals and three assists in the final 13 games. His biggest regular season contribution came in the final game of the season when his shootout goal gave the Sharks 113 points for the season—two more than Chicago at that point.
When the Blackhawks lost to Detroit in overtime the following day, the Sharks earned the top seed by one point and home-ice advantage in this round.
Couture has since played an even bigger role with three goals in the playoffs, including the game-tying score at Detroit in Game 3 that gave San Jose a stranglehold on the series.
While Couture is fitting in well in the NHL, he still has those moments where he can’t believe he’s playing at the sport’s highest level
“You try not to think about it, but it creeps into your mind that you’re sharing the ice with some of the best players in the world,” he said.
AP freelance writer Kevin Woodley in Vancouver contributed to this report.