The San Jose Sharks have lost the opening game of their last 4 playoff series, each time on home ice.Â This time it was the Colorado Avalanche destroying a full regular seasonâ€™s worth of San Joseâ€™s work in a single night.
Coloradoâ€™s Chris Stewart launched a shot off San Jose Defender Rob Blakeâ€™s left skate with 49.3 seconds remaining in the 3rd Period to send the Sharks faithful streaming for the exits.Â Stewieâ€™s goal capped a 2-1 road victory for the Avalanche in a game they entered as decided underdogs.Â Colorado suffered a series of injuries to core forwards throughout the season, and the result was a decent from #1 in the West to #8.
Still, the 8th spot is good enough for a birth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and San Joseâ€™s epic postseason struggles prove that the competition is wide open in hockeyâ€™s second season.Â The Avalanche went from worst in the West in â€™08-â€™09 to a playoff team in â€™09-â€™10 to an opening-game victory in San Jose Wednesday night.Â Better yet, the Avsâ€™ victory was no fluke; they played the Sharks even throughout the game.
San Jose came out strong to open the 1st period, logging 7 quick shots, 6 of those coming on a Power Play that started 0:28 in.
Fresh off the Penalty Kill, Colorado opened up, taking the next 6 shots of the game.Â The slugfest had begun.
That 1st Period was a very tradition Cup Playoff contest, with neither team able to score.Â The momentum simply swung back and forth, with both goaltenders making outstanding saves in the clutch.
Then, with 12:38 gone in the 2nd Period, Avalanche defenseman John-Michael Liles broke the ice with a laser from the blue-line to the top right corner of the San Jose net.Â Liles was the subject of trade rumors prior to the trade deadline, but has been redeeming himself ever since.
On the goal-scoring play, Liles moved right to left across the blue-line with a San Jose defender closing on the play.Â John-Michael wound up and shot across his body in an amazingly graceful, powerful & athletic movement.Â The shot was partially screened, and Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov saw the puck too late to stop it.Â Avalanche lead 1-0.
Colorado dominated the majority of that 2nd Period with a tenacity that had been missing since the halfway point in the regular season.
Hereâ€™s my theory on why the Avalanche saved their A-Game for the playoffsâ€¦
The Avs suffered a major spat of injuries around the middle of the season, and suddenly Colorado stopped diving into corners for loose pucks.Â They backed off high in the defensive zone instead of charging and blocking shots with their bodies.Â In short, Coach Joe Sacco was not interested in losing the most ice-time in the league to injury.Â (As it was, the Avs finished 2nd to Edmonton in that dubious category.)
Then, like flipping a switch, Colorado took the game to the Sharks.
The Avalanche blocked shots, scrapped mightily for pucks, matched the physical Sharks hit-for-hit all game long, and rolled their 3rd & 4th lines with the same regularity as their 1st & 2nd lines, especially in the first half of the game.Â Only 4 of 18 Colorado players failed to log a shot through this total team effort.
The result was Colorado beating San Jose at their own game, and throwing in a healthy dose of youthful Neutral Zone speed in the 2nd Period to really set the Sharks back on their heals.Â But San Jose would not go quietlyâ€¦
With 12:00 left in the game, the Sharksâ€™ Ryan Clowe put an ugly deflection shot past Craig Anderson to tie the game at 1-1.
That goal, which navigated three bodies worth of traffic in front of Anderson on its way to the net, was the only shot on the night that Andy couldnâ€™t stop.
After a solid month of questionable goaltending, the real Craig Anderson stood tall his first playoff game.Â Craig looked liked the goaltender that sparked this young Avalanche team to the top of the West a month into the season, and he only had to face 25 shots.Â That is well below his 30+ shot average from the regular season. Â Anderson looked fresh late in the game as a result of tenacious defense and shot-blocking by Colorado defenders.
Return now to Chris Stewartâ€™s game-winning goal with under a minute to play.
We have to remember that Rob Blake knocked the Avalancheâ€™s top late-season forward, Peter Mueller, out of the last week and at least the first two games of this series with a dirty blind-side hit that resulted in a concussion.Â And so, it was only fitting that Stewartâ€™s bad-angle shot (Stewie specializes in these) would carom off of Blakeâ€™s skate and past the San Jose netminder for the deciding goal.
Rob was brought in to shore up the San Jose defense, but the aging blue-liner only slows them down.Â A statue in front of the net, Blake never moved as Stewart skated around the net and unleashed the game-winner.Â Rob Blake posted up outside the crease, a relic of a bygone era of hockey, and the young Avalanche exposed the disadvantage of a big, veteran defender with limited movement in his own zone.
And with that, San Joseâ€™s home-ice advantage in this series evaporated into the thick California air.Â Game 2 is Friday night in the Shark Tank at 8:30 pm MST.