SAN JOSE, Calif. – Several of the current San Jose Sharks still remember the nagging ache of uncertainty that a team gets when it has three victories in a playoff series, but just can’t nail down the fourth.
The Sharks had it four years ago against Colorado, and they’re hoping to give it to the Dallas Stars on Friday night in Game 5 of a second-round series that’s still one San Jose mistake away from ending.
The Sharks beat the Avalanche in six games in 2004, but they also blew two elimination games in overtime before finally getting it done. That was the last time a team down 0-3 even pushed a series to a sixth game – something that’s only been done three times in the past 20 years, and something San Jose could do with another win to match Wednesday’s desperate 2-1 victory in Dallas.
“They still have a couple of match points, but I think they’re going to feel the pressure now,” Sharks defenceman Christian Ehrhoff said Thursday. “They know if we take another game, it’s going to be tighter and tighter for them. … It was like the series had just started a minute ago, and we were already down 3-0. It’s been pretty close all the way. The games seem to be decided by small mistakes on our part, but we’re far from being out.”
The clubs are preparing for the fifth game in eight days in a series that’s been just as tight and quick as Ehrhoff remembers. The teams have played three one-goal games and two overtime contests that were both won by the Stars, who acknowledge they’ve been a bit luckier at key points.
“These are very tight games,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “A save here, a save there, it decided the outcome. Now we have to go back on the road and try to win there. … We still have a 3-1 lead, but we recognize that they’re going home and they’re going to get some life out of this. We have to regroup.”
That hasn’t been a problem for the Stars in San Jose, where they’re 8-0-1 in their past nine appearances. Indeed, stopping Dallas at the Shark Tank seems a whole lot tougher than escaping an 0-3 hole at this point in a rivalry that’s been dominated by the road teams over the past two years.
Although their odds of surviving the series are still slim, the Sharks might be better equipped than many teams to dig out of a three-game hole. As San Jose coach Ron Wilson already has reminded his players, it’s only been done twice in NHL annals – in 1942 by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and again in 1975 by the New York Islanders.
Wilson doesn’t believe his team should cling to the standard one-game-at-a-time mentality – not when the chance to make history could be a mighty motivation.
“If you think you’re facing an impossible situation, you shouldn’t even be playing the game,” he said. “We know it can be done. When we lost two games to Colorado, we know it’s in the back of your mind – uh oh.”
The Sharks had the NHL’s second-best record in the regular season, but they’ve been a streaky team all season, prone to impressive highs and listless lows. They got many of their wins in bunches, including several four-game streaks and a 20-game string without a regulation defeat late in the season.
“We’re pretty resilient, (and) we seem to play better when we’re tired because we simplify things,” Wilson said. “We seem to not play well when we’ve had a number of days off between games.”
Too much rest shouldn’t be a problem after back-to-back games in Dallas, with players on both sides battling nagging injuries. Sharks defenceman Kyle McLaren likely is still out with a groin problem, while the Stars haven’t said whether centre Stu Barnes will be back after missing Game 4.
The Stars are far from panicked after another home loss to the Sharks, who have won six of their past nine in Dallas. The Stars still are in prime position to head to the conference finals for the first time since 2000.
“You don’t want to give them life,” Dallas defenceman Stephane Robidas said. “We gave them momentum a little bit. The sooner we can close them out, it’ll be better for us. We feel like we can win on their ice, that’s for sure, but they’ve shown heart and we have to be ready for a big challenge.”
San Jose’s special teams sputtered to life in Dallas after mostly terrible performances in the playoffs so far. The penalty killers kept the Stars scoreless in Game 4, while the San Jose power play got its second goal of the series – matching Patrick Marleau’s total short-handed goals in the past two games.
Wilson has used Marleau on both special-teams units, and he again praised the San Jose captain Thursday after criticizing him in Game 1 for hopping over a shot by Mike Modano. Marleau has a mostly nonverbal leadership style that’s been cited as one possible source of the Sharks’ motivational problems, yet his improving play also might be the start of a solution – but only if the Sharks survive Game 5.
“We’ve outshot them, we’ve out-chanced them, and now maybe we’ll be able to outscore them the rest of the way,” Wilson said.