Hockey's best conference semifinal series regressed a bit Friday.
After three games of speed, hard checks and goals born of hard work – not good fortune – the wheels came off for San Jose and Edmonton.
Perhaps it was to be expected. Games 1 and 2 in San Jose were contested at an intensity level that couldn't possibly be carried through a seven-game series. And then came Game 3, a three-overtime instant classic that could have gone either way countless times before Shawn Horcoff's game-winner for Edmonton.
So maybe it was no surprise that after three-plus periods of shutout hockey Wednesday, Edmonton goalie Dwayne Roloson gave up goals on the first two shots he faced Friday. His San Jose counterpart Vesa Toskala, who made 55 stops in Game 3, let in a soft one when Michael Peca scored from a bad angle in the second period.
That goal set the stage for the game's turning point. San Jose had a one-goal lead and a power play, but Edmonton killed the penalty and the puck cleared the zone just as Sergei Samsonov exited the penalty box.
Toskala read the play correctly and left his crease to race Samsonov to the puck. Toskala got there first, but everything went wrong from there. Rather than trying to play the puck – and replays showed he didn't have a lot of time for creative stickwork – he gave it a single poke. That chip went right off Samsonov, who gathered the puck for an uncontested goal.
From there things deteriorated for the Sharks, eventually resulting in Toskala's departure after allowing four unanswered goals.
This wasn't Edmonton's best effort, either, though they did an excellent job in the faceoff circle again and outshot the Sharks 35-25. The teams combined for 55 giveaways, and San Jose's third goal was set up when Edmonton defenseman Chris Pronger coughed up the puck.
THIRD STAR OF THE DAY
Pronger had a bad giveaway Friday, but who wasn't turning the puck over in Game 4? Pronger backed up his near-47 minute performance in Wednesday's marathon with another 27 minutes of ice time in the series equalizer. He assisted on two Edmonton goals and – wonder of wonders – got under the skin of Sharks right wing Jonathan Cheechoo in the third period. Pronger is exorcising quite a few playoff demons with his postseason effort of 2006.
SECOND STAR OF THE DAY
This wasn't Toskala's best day when it came to all-or-nothing moves. With the score tied in the third period, Oilers defenseman Jason Smith moved in on the Sharks goaltender after taking a beautiful centering pass from winger Sergei Samsonov. Toskala committed to a headlong poke-check, but Smith adjusted, moved to his backhand and scored the eventual game-winner. The generally conservative Smith added two assists for his first three-point night of the season.
FIRST STAR OF THE DAY
Game 4 certainly will be remembered for the Toskala misplay that led to Edmonton's third goal. The game definitely turned on that play, but it was more than just a giveaway. Credit Sergei Samsonov for reading Toskala and getting his body in position to deflect the puck. It was a subtle adjustment, but one that made the difference between a breakaway and a harmless clearing poke-check. San Jose fell apart from there, and Samsonov also assisted on Jason Smith's game-winning goal.
Give Sharks forward Nils Ekman an assist on that dramatic Samsonov goal. A San Jose power play was winding down, so Ekman had to know Samsonov was up and ready to go in the Edmonton penalty box. He had the puck deep in the Oilers zone but tried to execute a risky bank shot off Roloson. He missed the mark, the puck banked off the right-wing boards and, since San Jose didn't have that point covered, the race was on. Ekman is a character. Sometimes his creative juices get the best of him, though. This was one of those times.
Toskala's mishap at the blue line will be dissected to death over the coming days, particularly if Edmonton goes on to win this series. He no doubt made the right play leaving his crease, but it looked like he could have been stronger with the puck when he got there. Peca's soft rebound goal might have frazzled his nerves, too. Needless to say, the Sharks need Toskala on his game in Game 5.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR SATURDAY
Game 4: Carolina Hurricanes at New Jersey Devils – Rookie Cam Ward has a chance to become the first goalie to win his first eight playoff starts as Carolina goes for the sweep Saturday. Carolina has been beating New Jersey at its own game, forcing giveaways and turning them into scoring chances. This is only the second time the Devils have been down 3-0 in a series. It's hard to envision this veteran team going down without winning at least a game.
Game 5: Buffalo Sabres at Ottawa Senators – Ottawa has some life left as it can force a Game 6 with a home win Saturday. Ray Emery settled down for the Senators to stave off a sweep in Buffalo in Game 4. The Sens still need to cut down on the giveaways, as the Sabres are just too deep and too fast not to capitalize on Ottawa miscues.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT Watch
Only game in town Friday. You be the judge: Did Vesa Toskala make the right play after beating Sergei Samsonov to that loose puck?