After wasting a chance to clinch in Game 6, the Sharks left no question marks in a dominant 5-0 win over Nashville in Game 7 Thursday night at SAP Center to punch their ticket to the Western Conference Finals.
San Jose will face the St. Louis Blues in their first appearance in hockey’s final four since 2011. After posting the NHL’s worst home record in the regular season, the Sharks took care of home-ice advantage when it mattered most, winning all four games at SAP Center against the Predators in this series.
Head coach Pete DeBoer lauded his top players for taking charge:
“We came ready to play, led by our leadership and veterans in the room. Everybody just followed. To a man, that was our best team performance in the playoffs.”
They played a masterful game on both ends, consistently peppering Predators’ goaltender Pekka Rinne, limiting the Predators and staying out of the penalty box for nearly the entire game.
Couture said, bluntly:
“That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to go out there and lead this team and contribute offensively.”
The Sharks were buzzing to start the game, outshooting the Predators 7-0 through five minutes. And they drew first blood on the power play midway through the period on a beautifully executed passing play from Joe Thornton on the side boards to Marleau behind the goal line to Joe Pavelski point-blank for the captain’s ninth goal of the postseason.
They kept the pressure ramped up, and struck again late in the period to double their lead on a beauty of a goal by Joel Ward. Known for his big postseason goals, Ward delivered a dandy with a poke check to get past a defender at the blue line and beat Rinne with a set of nifty dekes.
Ward described his goal as a “reaction”:
“I knew that [Rinne] came out pretty good, so I tried to get him with the fake and go around him. He cut my path off, so I just tried to react and make a play and slipped it by him.”
San Jose led 2-0 after the first period and dominated on the shot counter, posting 17 shots while holding Nashville to just three.
And they didn’t waste any time in the second period, with Predators’ defenseman Shea Weber gifting a turnover in his own zone to Couture, who converted on a breakaway just 36 seconds in to put the Sharks in front 3-0.
After two, the Predators were still in the single digits on the shot counter at eight. A power play to begin the third period yielded another quick strike, with Thornton cleaning up a wrist shot by Couture on a 4-on-1 break to pad the lead to a 4-0 cushion.
Keeping the action on the other end was certainly nice for Sharks’ goaltender Martin Jones, who faced just 20 shots and stopped them all:
“That was key not to let off the gas. That’s a team that can turn around on you pretty quick. If they start getting momentum and start getting on the forecheck, they’re pretty good at hemming you in for long periods of time. It was important for us not to give us that momentum.”
A few minutes after Couture’s goal, Marleau finished off a 2-on-1 break with Couture to put the game away for good, forcing Rinne from the game, but not until after the former Vezina Trophy finalist smashed his stick on the goalpost twice, tossed it away in disgrace and skated angrily to the bench.
It was just that kind of night for the Predators and that much sweeter for the Sharks, who are one step closer to vanquishing the playoff bug that has bit them for decades. Unlike the failed teams of the past, these Sharks are loaded, from the first to the fourth line.
“We’ve got a deep team. We roll four lines, we roll 16 [skaters]. We have so much trust with each other that whoever goes over that board, we have confidence they’ll do the job. Tonight, Pete just keep rolling [four lines] and we just kept coming, wave after wave after them.”
Thornton is one of the core pieces who has remained with the franchise through thick and thin, through coaching change after coaching change and playoff exit after playoff exit. He insisted after the Sharks clinched against the Kings in the first round that this team was different, and DeBoer echoed those thoughts after this clincher:
This isn’t the same team as it’s been in the past. We have a whole bunch of new bodies and a whole different cast of characters and a whole different identity, whole different coaching staff.
And they hope their newfound identity takes them to uncharted territory — a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals will be Sunday in St. Louis.