Remember the stumbling, struggling, choking Sharks of old? As evidenced by Game 7’s 5-0 victory, those Sharks don’t reside in San Jose anymore.
Any new fan tuning into Thursday’s game would have seen a Sharks team with a killer instinct, one facing a seventh and deciding game and playing in such a way that the Nashville Predators weren’t battling to move on to the Western Conference final so much as they were fighting to avoid embarrassment. As harsh as that may sound, it’s the reality of a Game 7 that was owned by the Sharks.
And for fans of old, watching the Sharks dismantle the Predators may have been a revelation, because throughout the post-season it’s been hard to shake the feeling that at some point San Jose was going to revert to their shortcomings of years past. That was not to be the case, just as it wasn't throughout the first-round series in which the Sharks stunned the perennial favorite Los Angeles Kings.
The reason for that is that Thursday night, the Sharks were dominant and in a way that few teams have been this post-season. And it’s not as if the dominance was gradual. From the outset of the contest, San Jose bullied Nashville. It was the kind of ice-tilt, opposition-on-roller skates dominance one would expect from a regular season contest from a top-tier team and one who just hadn’t quite figured it out yet. If the Sharks would have capitalized on all the chances they had in the first period alone, they still could have walked away with a 5-0 victory, which is to say San Jose’s 17-3 shot advantage after the first period wasn’t misleading in the least.
And while the Sharks’ dominance was smothering, it took until the midway mark of the opening frame for San Jose to actually find the back of the net. It shouldn’t be one bit surprising it was captain Joe Pavelski scoring on the power play, his ninth goal of the playoffs, to give the Sharks the early lead, either. If it’s been said once, it’s been said a thousand times: this is Pavelski’s team now, and his post-season performance thus far is proof positive that there was no other choice for captain, no other player to lead this team into the next era.
Seven minutes later, it was Joel Ward, who’s had a penchant for big goals in big games, extending San Jose’s lead to 2-0 by Predators defenseman Roman Josi with ease before beating goaltender Pekka Rinne five-hole. Then 36 seconds into the second period, Logan Couture added to the lead. In the third, it was Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
It goes beyond simply the goals, though. The Sharks played a disciplined game that saw them take only one minor penalty. Even that didn’t come until the back half of the final frame, and it was the second straight series-deciding game in which San Jose took one penalty or less. And when the Sharks went on their own man advantages, they were as surgical as they have been throughout the post-season, scoring twice for their 12th and 13th power play goals of these playoffs. And the one area where some feared the Sharks could look the most shaky, between the pipes, wasn’t a concern for even a second.
Martin Jones, the young goaltender who had never seen action in a Game 7, stood tall, looked calm and turned aside everything he faced, even after prolonged periods of next to no action in both the first and second frames.
All told, San Jose’s Game 7 victory was one of the most convincing Game 7 wins in recent memory, and that’s including the St. Louis Blues’ 6-1 drubbing of the Dallas Stars Wednesday night. Whereas the Blues win could at least be somewhat due to the Stars’ poor goaltending, the Sharks’ win was simply one team overpowering the other.
And now the Sharks head to the Western Conference final for the first time since the 2010-11 season with the chance to shake the choker tag ever further, and it feels for once that leaving that reputation behind won’t really be a concern. This is already a successful season for a team that has proven it’s nothing like those teams that have failed to get the job done. This is a different Sharks team. They showed it Thursday night in a Game 7 on home ice with a chance to move to the third round. Now, they’ll have the opportunity to do what the franchise has never done before and advance to the Stanley Cup final.