They simply grabbed control of an incendiary playoff series with steady, hard work – and even the Predators were coolly impressed. Milan Michalek and Ryane Clowe scored second-period goals, and the Sharks pounded Nashville with 41 shots in a 3-1 victory Monday night.
Captain Patrick Marleau scored the clinching goal with 4:26 to play, and Evgeni Nabokov made 19 saves behind the Sharks’ relentless offensive attack to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Both teams opened up with the same frenzied intensity of the first two games in front of a deafening sellout crowd at the Shark Tank. Both coaches worried about deflating after that initial surge – but after Nashville took an early one-goal lead, San Jose calmly took control.
“When you simplify the game, sometimes you get more opportunities to be physical,” said Sharks winger Mike Grier, who gave another superb forechecking performance. “There were a lot of things going on in the first two games, and that energy can work against you. Everyone just settled down, and we got back to the game we wanted to play.”
Game 4 is Wednesday night at the Shark Tank, with Game 5 back in Nashville on Friday.
After a double-overtime thriller and a bruising rematch in Nashville, both 51-victory clubs were more mellow on the West Coast – but there was nothing laid-back about the Sharks’ effort. Though the Sharks’ vaunted power play is an inept 1-for-18 against Nashville, hard work turned Game 3 in San Jose’s favour during an 18-shot second period.
Even with Joe Thornton leading the attack, there’s not much flashy about it – just the methodical intensity and imposing physical game common to the Sharks’ best performances.
“When we’re on top of our game, we get the puck deep and try to wear other teams down,” Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. “I thought we did a pretty good job of that.”
Ryan Suter scored his first NHL playoff goal for the Predators, who still haven’t won a road playoff game in six tries over three seasons. Tomas Vokoun stopped 38 shots in another solid performance, but the Predators spent too much time scrambling back on defence.
“We got outplayed, plain and simple,” Vokoun said. “They were a better team, and the score shows it, and every stat you look at shows it. Sometimes that’s not exactly the story always, but certainly it was today.”
Steve Bernier was back in the Sharks’ lineup after leaving Game 2 following a blindside hit by rookie forward Alexander Radulov, who was suspended for the Predators’ first game in San Jose. Scott Hartnell got the series’ bad feelings started in Game 1 with a knee-to-knee hit on Jonathan Cheechoo.
Both teams still played a physical game: Nashville winger Martin Erat left the ice in the second period after receiving a hard hit, and Trotz said he’ll be re-evaluated Tuesday. Michalek then left with 2½ minutes left after Jason Arnott’s stick apparently got underneath his visor.
The Shark Tank booed Hartnell each time he touched the puck, but the Predators scored the only first-period goal when Suter hit an open net after cross-ice passes by David Legwand and J.P. Dumont.
“We knew the energy level would be great in this building,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “I thought we had a pretty good first period for coming into a tough place. In the second period, the Sharks got momentum, a couple of penalties.”
The Sharks’ power play – second-best in the NHL during the regular season – failed six times in the first two periods. But Nashville’s string of penalties wore out its penalty-killers and frustrated the skill players who couldn’t get on the ice.
But San Jose tied it midway through the second period when Michalek tipped Craig Rivet’s low shot from the point.
The Sharks’ power play flopped again moments later – but when Paul Kariya left the penalty box and skated to his bench instead of joining the Predators’ defence, Clowe was unchecked when he scored his second goal of the playoffs.
Nashville stayed close by aggressively killing off a 79-second two-man advantage for the Sharks, but couldn’t generate much offence of its own despite long, exhausting shifts for Peter Forsberg and Kariya.
“We had a couple of chances to tie it up, but overall we need to work harder, and we need to play a little smarter,” Forsberg said. “We didn’t get the puck deep. They got the puck deep, and they outworked us down low.”
Notes: The series is the first opening-round playoff matchup pitting two of the NHL’s top five regular-season teams since 1990. Nashville finished third overall with 110 points, while San Jose was fifth with 107. … Suter is the nephew of former Sharks D Gary Suter.