Henrik Sedin was talking about belief systems Saturday and his theory went something like this: Nobody, outside their own dressing room, had any faith that the Vancouver Canucks could come back in their playoff series against the San Jose Sharks, after losing the first two games of their Western Conference quarter-final at home.
Well, whatever stragglers may have lingered on the Canucks’ bandwagon through the weekend fell off – hard, with a thud – Sunday night, when the Sharks chased starting goaltender Cory Schneider with three early third-period goals to record a one-sided 5-2 victory over the visiting Canucks.
The loss left the Canucks down 3-0 in the series and in danger of becoming the first team eliminated in the 2013 playoffs, which will undoubtedly cause a massive organizational rethink in the summer. In the past two years, they have fallen hard – from losing the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final to the Boston Bruins two years ago to facing the possibility of being swept out in the opening round this spring.
If the margins in the first two games were razor thin, and could have gone either way, there was little doubt which was the better team Sunday night.
The Sharks dominated every aspect of the game – special teams, even-strength play, netminding. Canucks coach Alain Vigneault elected to start Schneider ahead of Roberto Luongo after Schneider had recovered from the mysterious “body” injury that kept him out of the previous four games.
Schneider was sharp enough over the first 40 minutes, but crumbled at the start of the third, as the Sharks turned a one-goal nail biter into an easy victory.
The onslaught began when the Sharks’ emerging young star, Logan Couture, scored his first of two at the 1:40 mark of the third, a soft goal off the left side that Schneider muffed.
“I just missed it,” said Schneider. “I wish I could give you a better explanation … It’s not a good feeling to let your team down like that.”
Nine seconds later, with the Canucks still reeling, Couture fed a pass to Patrick Marleau, who found enough wide open ice and fought off Alex Edler to convert his third of the series.
Less than two minutes later, Couture scored again, on the power play, capping a four-point night and forcing coach Vigneault to insert Luongo to stop the bleeding.
By then, it was too late.
“Like all goaltenders, you’ve got to have a short memory,” said Vigneault, sounding unusually dispirited after the game. “When you’re asked the next time to play, you have to play your heart out – and I’m sure that’s what he’s going to do.”
The Sharks also received two goals from Joe Pavelski, a development that highlighted the primary difference between the two teams. San Jose can run three lines and get scoring contributions from all three – notable because the Canucks have simply been unable to consistently produce offence in this series.
Alex Burrows’ second-period goal was just Vancouver’s fourth in three games, on a neat set-up by Henrik Sedin that briefly gave the Canucks hope that they might get back in the game.
But in the final seconds of the middle period, Sharks’ centre Joe Thornton got in behind the Canucks’ defence on a breakaway, forcing Jannik Hansen to pull him down. Hansen was in the penalty box at the start of the third, when Couture broke the game open.
Couture’s emergence as a complement to Thornton as a strong 1-2 punch down the middle has permitted Sharks’ coach Todd McLellan to use the versatile Pavelski to anchor his third line. And while Vancouver’s third line has been essentially non-existent in this series, the Sharks have consistently worn the Canucks’ down with their persistent forechecking. Players such as Hansen, Chris Higgins, Mason Raymond and Derek Roy have been unable to provide the necessary scoring support to the Sedins, who are not nearly as effective as they once were.
“I wouldn’t say it’s tougher to score in the playoffs, but I believe we’ve got the skill to score some goals, to score the right amount of goals,” said Vigneault, “but obviously we didn’t prove it tonight and we didn’t prove it prior to that.
“We were fine going into the third. We had a power-play to kill and we were almost there. Obviously, I’m not happy with how we reacted after that.”
Ultimately, the Sharks are just flat-out deeper up front than the Canucks, and over time, they have also developed into one of the elite defensive teams in the league, beginning with Antti Niemi in goal, who is technically a far better netminder than he was when he won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks a few years back.
The Sharks added Larry Robinson to their coaching staff this season and the results – on the penalty killing and in their defensive-zone coverage – have been impeccable. But McLellan wasn’t prepared to count the series won just yet, and said he would remind the Sharks Monday that the last time they were up 3-0 in a playoff series (against the Detroit Red Wings two years ago), they ended up going seven.
“There’s a lot of hockey left between these two teams, a lot,” said McLellan, who noted: “The back-to-back goals were a bit of a back breaker and it worked in our favour.
“Vancouver’s got a lot of talent and a lot of veteran players, who’ve played a long time. They’re going to come to play – and if we don’t, we’ll be in trouble.”
In all, the Sharks converted three of their power-play chances, after being shut out on five tries with the man advantage in their overtime win Friday night. At 4-1, the Canucks’ frustration started to show – and Henrik Sedin suggested they simply took too many penalties “and you can’t do that in the playoffs.
“Are we playing good enough to win? Yes. But we don’t score enough. That’s the bottom line. That’s what it comes down to. Their guys are scoring; we’re not; and you lose games.”
After scoring twice in Friday’s OT loss, Canucks’ centre Ryan Kesler had a quiet game. Kesler’s solution for Tuesday’s potential elimination game:
“We’ve got to get 20 guys to work hard,” he said, “a lot harder than their 20 guys. We’ve got to out-will these guys all over the ice – and in that third period, we didn’t at all.
“Our backs are against the wall. We can either crumble or come back and come out swinging … I’m not going down easy. That’s for sure.”
The Canucks went down this same essential path last year, losing the first three games of a playoff series at home to an underdog team from California – and people remember how that turned out. They were out in the first round, exiting in five games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
The Canucks didn’t make a lot of wholesale changes on the heels of that defeat, seeing it as an aberration and believing that their championship window was still wide open.
If they get swept by the Sharks, there should be no such short-sightedness this time around.