SAN JOSE, Calif. – Mike Ricci put his shot into the far corner, and Evgeni Nabokov dived to get it. The pingpong ball sliced away from the goalie’s paddle, and he tumbled to the floor of the San Jose Sharks’ locker room with an exaggerated yelp.
“Game over!” Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said with a grin. Ricci, the former forward who’s now a team executive, crossed himself, while team owner Greg Jamison laughed at his doubles partner’s pratfall.
No, the second-seeded Sharks weren’t exactly rigid with angst on the day before Game 7 of their first-round series against the Calgary Flames.
After putting up the second-best regular season record in the NHL, San Jose’s playoff hopes are teetering on a single game at the Shark Tank against a surging opponent with ample playoff experience. That didn’t stop the Sharks from breaking out their new pingpong table after practice Monday.
“Emotions can play a big role in a series, so you want to take a step back from that sometimes,” defenceman Craig Rivet said. “It’s nice to have this type of atmosphere, but when we come to the rink, we’re going to be focused. We’re going to be playing desperate hockey for the first time, and we’re excited.”
Wilson and Ricci might have won their tussle with Jamison and Nabokov, who emerged uninjured. But the Sharks will need more than a good backhand to avoid a loss that could change the course of their franchise.
Though the seventh-seeded Flames have shaken off an inconsistent regular season to play the tough hockey expected from them all year, the Sharks have expectations beyond the first two playoff rounds. After playing their worst game of the series in a 2-0 loss Sunday, the Sharks could be in for major changes if they don’t get one more victory in a series that’s been just as nail-bitingly tough as coach Ron Wilson predicted two weeks ago.
“We knew it was going to go six or seven games right from the get-go,” said Joe Thornton, the Sharks’ second-leading scorer in the series with six points. “We had a real good feeling it was going to go seven games. … We played all 82 games to get home advantage for this Game 7.”
San Jose won the Pacific Division with 108 points, but all this California cool can’t change the fact that one more loss to Calgary would negate most of the Sharks’ accomplishments. After losing in the second round in two straight seasons, San Jose would be cemented as regular-season overachievers who can’t get it together in the real season.
The thought apparently doesn’t worry most of the Sharks, as they proved on the pingpong table. Instead, they seem more eager to partake of the tension and stress that only arise from a seventh game.
“If you’re not afraid of the situation, but if you’re anxious, I think that’s a good thing,” said centre Jeremy Roenick, a surprising Game 6 scratch. “We do have a lot of pride, and we’re very confident in ourselves. I think we’re eager to get back at it and make up for a very lacklustre performance in Game 6.”
Coach Mike Keenan and 17 players on Calgary’s roster have been in a winner-take-all playoff game. Keenan will be coaching his 11th Game 7 – the most in NHL history – and Stephane Yelle will take the lead among active players with his 11th appearance.
Just eight Sharks have played in a Game 7, and Thornton doesn’t even remember his sole experience with Boston. Sandis Ozolinsh, the most experienced of all, is unlikely to play, but Roenick has scored four goals in seventh games, including a game-winner.
Roenick will be back in the Sharks’ lineup for Game 7, but defenceman Kyle McLaren won’t play.
“That kind of excitement, where it’s winner-take-all, is the type of excitement you want to have,” said Ron Wilson, who won a seventh game when he coached Anaheim. “We’ve just got to have a better start to the game and enjoy a seventh game. These don’t come along too often.”
The Flames forced it by shutting out the Sharks for the first time in the series. San Jose hadn’t been held scoreless since Dec. 18, but its impotent effort was symbolized by Milan Michalek’s panicked inability to pass or shoot on a 3-on-1 break late in the second period.
The high-scoring Czech forward has no points and just five shots in the series despite playing more than 16 minutes per game, mostly on Thornton’s line.
“Right now, the only guy who can help himself is Milan,” Wilson said. “He’s got to find something simple, and just accomplish it.”