SAN JOSE, Calif. – Rob Blake scored another big goal for the Colorado Avalanche – only this time he was wearing the opposing team’s uniform.
Chris Stewart’s centring pass deflected off Blake’s skate and into the net with 50 seconds left in regulation to give the Avalanche a 2-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks in the opener of the first-round series Wednesday night.
“We’re confident,” Stewart said. “We knew were the underdog and it’s been the situation all year. I thought we proved everyone wrong in the regular season and we want to do it again in the playoffs.”
The loss was just the latest playoff disappointment for the Sharks, who have made a bad habit of following up stellar regular seasons with early post-season exits. San Jose has lost Game 1 at home in its past four playoff series.
This was especially shocking, considering it came against an eighth-seeded Avalanche team that had the worst record in the Western Conference a year ago. But Colorado started the playoffs the same way they started this turnaround season, with a win over the heavily favoured Sharks
“The first game is an important game, let’s not kid ourselves,” Colorado coach Joe Sacco said. “But there’s still a long ways to go. We are the eight seed and they are the one seed. Not a lot of people are giving us a chance in this series, and the pressure is on them. We played to our identity tonight right from the start.”
The Avalanche used a power-play goal by John-Michael Liles, 25 saves from playoff novice Craig Anderson and the fortunate bounce off Blake’s skate to get off to a roaring playoff start.
After a flat second period, the Sharks tied it midway through the third when Ryane Clowe’s bad-angle shot from the boards got through a screen by Joe Pavelski and beat Anderson. But instead of reversing San Jose’s playoff fortunes, it only delayed the inevitable disappointment.
Stewart, another of Colorado’s 10 playoff newcomers in the lineup, fired the puck to T.J. Galiardi in front of the net. Before it could get there, the puck hit off Blake’s skate and past a helpless Evgeni Nabokov.
Blake spent five seasons with the Avalanche, winning the Stanley Cup in 2001. He scored 16 post-season goals in that time.
“Nabby was set, was in good position,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “It went off Blake’s skate. That happens. There’s nothing we can change there. There’s nothing we can do about that. It’s a break that went their way. Bad break.”
Game 2 is Friday night in San Jose.
The Sharks were greeted in introductions by a frenzied, towel-waving crowd, hoping the team had put its past playoff failures in the past. Despite having the second most points in the league the past five seasons, San Jose has failed to make it past the second round of the playoffs in that span.
The biggest disappointment came last season when the Sharks fell in the first round to Anaheim despite having the best record in the league in the regular season. San Jose lost the opener of that series 2-0.
“If you’re thinking about that kind of stuff you’re not in the right mental frame of mind,” Clowe said. “What are losses in the past years going to do for us? These guys have a lot of character. The visiting team always wants to steal a game on the road. We would too. We just have to bounce back, work it out in practice, and come back.”
Most of the Avalanche players had no playoff failures to burden them or success to fall back on. But they looked like playoff veterans in the second half of the second period, when they dominated the play from end to end. After failing to get a shot on goal in the first nine minutes of the second, Colorado outshot San Jose 12-2 in the final 11.
The Avalanche earned two power plays with their aggressive play, converting on the first chance when Liles shot from the point went through traffic and beat Nabokov for the first goal of the series.
The Sharks wanted to get off to a fast start to silence the questions about their playoff prowess and to prevent all those post-season novices from Colorado from finding their legs. It looked as if that was just what would happen when Stewart was called for hooking in the offensive zone just 28 seconds into the game.
San Jose put good pressure on Anderson, getting six shots on goal during the power play, but was unable to get any through. Dany Heatley hit a post just after the power play ended.
“I felt relieved,” Anderson said. “There was a lot of energy there and in the building. I think that pumped me up and got the guys going. After that penalty right out of the gate and we killed that off, we got going.”
NOTES: Colorado F Peter Mueller did not make the trip as he recovers from a head injury sustained after being hit along the boards by Sharks captain Rob Blake on April 4. … This is the fourth post-season meeting between the teams. Colorado won in 1999 and 2002 and San Jose took the 2004 series. … The Sharks suited up seven defencemen, with rookie Jason Demers also skating as a forward on the fourth line.