SAN JOSE, Calif. – Evgeni Nabokov views his 45-save masterpiece in Chicago the same way he does the seven-goal outburst the Blackhawks had in San Jose during the regular season.
Both are absolutely irrelevant once the Western Conference finals between the Sharks and Blackhawks begin on Sunday afternoon in San Jose.
“As a player you just throw the good away, you throw the bad away, and you just face the present,” Nabokov said Thursday. “It’s what’s happening now. That’s what we try to concentrate on as a team. … Once the playoffs starts, it’s a different season.”
The Sharks sure hope that’s the case considering they lost three of the four head-to-head matchups between the teams, including a 7-2 blowout on home ice on Nov. 25. San Jose also lost three of four regular-season games against Detroit before eliminating the Red Wings in five games in the second round.
Along with the dominating win in November, Chicago won a pair of games in overtime and lost 3-2 at home against the Sharks on Dec. 22 despite outshooting San Jose 47-14.
“Simply put, we didn’t play very well against Chicago and we’ll have to play a lot better to win,” coach Todd McLellan said. “We need quicker starts against Chicago. We always seem to be behind the eight ball. For us to get into a track meet with this team won’t be very productive for us throughout the series.”
While the Blackhawks will use some things they learned from those games in this series, they don’t expect the results will give them any sort of edge now.
“It’s a different time of year,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “Teams play different. Anything can happen in a seven-game series in the playoffs.”
Chicago scored first in three of the four meetings, including the big win in November. Troy Brouwer got that one started with a short-handed goal, and then Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp also scored short-handed on the same power play in the second.
Nabokov allowed four goals in the first two periods and all three short-handed goals before being replaced by Thomas Greiss.
“They’re a fast team,” he said. “They’re a good short-handed team. We experienced that ourselves. I’m sure they will continue to do that.”
Brent Seabrook won the first game in Chicago with an overtime goal and Chicago broke out to a 3-0 lead in the final meeting of the season before finally winning it on Brouwer’s overtime tally.
The one Sharks win came when Nabokov stole the game with his sterling performance just before Christmas.
“We sent a lot of pucks on net and their goaltender was great,” Sharp said. “That’s the danger with San Jose. You can play as well as you want and they get one opportunity and it’s in the back of the net. They have so many skill players you have to be aware of when you’re on the ice.”
Plenty has changed since these teams last met on Jan. 28 in San Jose, most notably in Chicago’s goal. Antti Niemi has replaced Cristobal Huet as the Blackhawks’ starting goalie and has a 2.57 goals against average and .909 save percentage in winning the first two rounds against Nashville and Vancouver.
Huet played all four games against San Jose, while Niemi has never faced the Sharks or played at HP Pavilion. While he has practised there in the past, he won’t get a chance before the opener because of concerts and the afternoon start time.
“First games are different because you don’t know their place as well,” Niemi said.
Both teams are eager to get this series started even though they will have to wait until Sunday because the Eastern Conference matchup isn’t set yet and there is a concert at HP Pavilion on Saturday night.
The Sharks will have had seven full days off since beating Detroit in the first round, while the Blackhawks will have spend three full days in San Jose waiting for the opener.
“In our situation, I wish we would be playing tomorrow to tell you the truth, but we’re not,” McLellan said. “There’s nothing we can do about it. … There’s a lot of pros to ending the series early. One of the cons is having to wait a little longer. I still wouldn’t have it any other way.”