For the fourth time in franchise history, the San Jose Sharks advance to the Western Conference Finals after defeating the Nashville Predators in a tough seven game series. Many things have to come together for any team to win any round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the match-up between the Sharks and Predators was no different. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are the most difficult of any postseason in sport. The NHL’s second campaign is one of every possible combination of skill, toughness, and luck. In winning four games against a stout Nashville squad, these four keys made the difference for the Sharks:
Doing the Dirty Work
It is no secret that goals in the NHL these days are at a premium and more so each round of the postseason teams advance. Nashville’s defensive game is dependent on keeping the shots to the perimeter of their zone and were successful in this in Games 3 and 4. The season-long scouting report on Pekka Rinne has been to get in close to the net, where he has been below average all year. The Sharks four wins came when they worked their way to the inside. Of the Sharks 27 goals in the series, only four came from outside of the home plate area in front of the Nashville net.
Young Core Steps Up
Sharks GM Doug Wilson identified Logan Couture and captain Joe Pavelski as the players he called the young core that would lead the club going forward after a tumultuous 2014-15 campaign. Both Couture and Pavelski took their lumps with injuries this year but when it mattered most, both came to play in a series closer and tougher than many expected. Couture led the Sharks in scoring in the series and was the catalyst for the Sharks second line. His six goals and five assists in seven games were pivotal for a Sharks team that at times looked outgunned buy the insane zone deployment of the Predators.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) May 13, 2016
Captain Joe Pavelski was again a player looked to for a spark in games that lacked it for San Jose. It would be hard to argue that Pavelski’s selection as captain was not the right choice at the right time. Pavelski recorded at least point in all four Sharks wins and the line of Pavelski, Tomas Hertl, and Joe Thornton often faced the toughest Predator defenders allowing the second the third lines to face lesser competition. His goal in Game 7 would ignite the home crowd and the Sharks never looked back.
Additionally, the contributions from Chris Tierney were key as well. Tierney’s two goals early in Game 6 gave the Sharks a chance at victory in a contest which the Predators outplayed the Sharks in all areas of the ice. Tierney drew some of the toughest zone start assignments of any San Jose Sharks player in the series, starting two out of every three shift in the defensive zone. He was a vital cog in a balanced Sharks attack and a player that helped bring balance to the bottom-six forwards.
Martin Jones Answers the Bell
As mentioned before the playoffs started, Martin Jones was the realistic answer to who the Sharks would start in goal. Jones has been steady and stolen a few games for the Sharks in the first two rounds, and more will be needed against a talented St. Louis Blues team. But regardless of how the next round plays out, Jones has solidified himself as a dependable NHL starting goaltender and has a full year of lessons learned as a starting goaltender. His time in the playoffs this year have added to his experience, and a few battle scars from the Stanley Cup playoffs is never a bad thing. Oh, and there was that nice shutout in Game 7 to close out the series. Those lessons learned and confidence in his play during the first two rounds will be key for Jones to draw from as the Sharks move to the conference finals and beyond.
Martin Jones: 8th goalie in the past 40 seasons to record his 1st career playoff shutout amidst the pressure of Gm 7 pic.twitter.com/FjuVHNjhKF
— StatsCentre (@StatsCentre) May 13, 2016
The book on the San Jose Sharks in the recent past has been one in which the mental toughness, right or wrong, as been pointed to as the issue with the team. The criticism was brought to the forefront when the Sharks lost to the Los Angles Kings in 2014 and then suffered through a disastrous 2014-15 season and missing the playoffs altogether. The Sharks were beaten in every facet in Game 3 and suffered a heartbreaking triple-overtime loss in Game 4. Game 4 could have been when the Sharks cracked under the pressure but responded with a huge effort in Game 5. The shout win to close out the series after an overtime loss in Game 6 came against a very tough opponent: Nashville had been 3-0 in elimination games this year. The bounce back effort to finish off an opponent in such commanding fashion is one not have seen from previous versions of the Sharks, even if fans had to wait longer than they would have liked to witness it.
These four keys could likely expand even further. Winning any round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs requires contributions from the entire roster. While more could about other players factoring heavily on the outcome of this series could be pointed to, these four keys are what were the difference between a flight to St. Louis and an empty locker room.