San Jose captain Joe Thornton tried to get the Western Conference finals off to a raucous start when he asked gritty Vancouver Canucks forward Ryan Kesler to drop the gloves right off the opening faceoff.
”Why not?” Thornton said Tuesday, confirming he made the invitation to Kesler. ”Let’s fight. Let’s start the series off with a bang.”
It didn’t happen. Instead, the Canucks rallied in the third period for a 3-2 win on Sunday night.
Maybe Thornton and the Sharks should be more concerned about how they finish games than how they start them. San Jose is trailing in a series for the first time this postseason and will have a chance to get even on Wednesday night in Game 2 in Vancouver.
The Sharks’ inability to hold onto third-period leads nearly cost them in the second round against Detroit, when the Red Wings erased a 3-0 series deficit to force a Game 7.
Even though the Sharks are behind in a series for the first time, they are all too familiar with coughed-up leads. San Jose surrendered third-period advantages in Game 5 and 6 against the Red Wings before holding off Detroit in Game 7.
The Sharks were ahead 2-1 going into the third period of Game 1 against Vancouver, but gave up two goals 79 seconds apart and were outshot 13-7 in the final frame.
That makes three blown third-period leads in four games for the Sharks, who were 33-2-2 during the regular season when leading after 40 minutes.
”I certainly don’t feel uncomfortable with a lead,” Sharks top defenseman Dan Boyle said. ”That’s where I want to be, and we have to find a way to finish people off, maybe by getting that next goal and building on that one-goal lead.”
It’s a lesson the Canucks already learned – the hard way – in these playoffs.
Vancouver was 38-0-3 with the lead after two periods during the regular season in which the Canucks had the NHL’s best record and topped the league in several key categories. But after surrendering a 3-0 series lead to nemesis Chicago to start the playoffs, the Canucks gave up a short-handed goal late in Game 7 before recovering to win in overtime.
They continued to sit on leads against Nashville early in the conference semi finals, surviving a 1-0 win in Game 1 before surrendering one with 67 seconds left in Game 2 and losing in overtime. It wasn’t until Game 6, the series’ clincher against the Predators, that the Canucks got back to their regular season habit of trying to build on, rather than protect, late leads.
”I hope we’ve learned from our mistakes and mishaps, and we have to continue to have that killer instinct,” Canucks forward Mason Raymond said. ”We were good all year but regular season is regular season, playoffs are another level. We talked about having more of a killer instinct when we do get the lead, not sitting back so much.”
Fatigue might have played a role in the Sharks’ latest late-game letdown. Coming off an emotional Game 7 win against Detroit and with only two days off before starting their second straight conference finals, San Jose looked tired against the Canucks’ third-period push.
After taking Monday off before practicing Tuesday, both teams expect better from the Sharks in Game 2.
”(Monday) helped us a little,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. ”We dealt with the mental part of the game, some video. Today it was important to get back on the ice and get our legs going. We had some tempo. Doesn’t guarantee we’ll skate any better, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Boyle’s next step is to keep going forward. He said the Sharks were guilty of turning over the puck on their way into the offensive zone, and that they spent too much time in their own end as a result of the Canucks’ counterattack.
That is exactly where Kesler wants his team, pointing to the continued push after the Canucks took the lead with 11 minutes left in Game 1.
”We’ve learned from past experience that we’re not a very good team when we sit on leads,” Kesler said. ”We have to keep pushing and play a fast game.”
As for fighting to start games, Kesler said he laughed at Thornton’s invitation after a lot of jostling got both players tossed out of the series’ first faceoff.
”I’m not intimidated by anyone,” Kesler said, pointing to Nashville defenseman Shea Weber as proof. ”I played against Weber and that beard last round.”
NOTES: Boyle accused the Canucks of embellishing fouls in Game 1 to get penalty calls: ”Their heads are going back like they are getting shot with a gun.” Vancouver had four power plays to one for San Jose. … Sharks D Jason Demers is expected to play Game 2 after being a surprise scratch on Sunday because of an unidentified injury. Kent Huskins played his first game of these playoffs in his place. … Vancouver C Manny Malhotra skated in full equipment Tuesday after returning last week to the ice for the first time since a career-threatening eye injury in March, but still hasn’t been cleared for contact. … Vancouver LW Jeff Tambellini is expected to replace Tanner Glass on the fourth line after practicing there Tuesday, adding speed in place of grit.