PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference semifinals, Game 1.
Hardly anyone thought the Edmonton Oilers would knock off the NHL’s winningest team, and even fewer could have figured the No. 5 San Jose Sharks to be the highest seed remaining after the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
In a wide-open West that’s missing its top four-regular teams, the Sharks take on the eighth-seeded Oilers in the opener of an unlikely semifinal series at HP Pavilion.
The unprecedented elimination of the first four seeds in the West has left the Sharks with home-ice advantage throughout the conference playoffs—and perhaps as the team to beat. San Jose has won 12 of its last 14 games, cruising to a 4-1 opening-series win over fourth-seeded Nashville in the opening round.
The Sharks lost the first game to the Predators, but won four in a row to advance. San Jose closed out the series last Sunday and watched as Detroit, Dallas and Calgary were also eliminated, leaving the Sharks as the top remaining seed as they try to reach the conference finals for the second straight season.
“I’m glad we worked so hard down the stretch, because it’s put us in a great position,” Sharks forward Scott Thornton said. “All the sacrifices to get into the playoffs got home ice for us. Obviously, we didn’t expect this result, but we love being at home in front of our fans.”
The Sharks have given those fans plenty to cheer about, losing just twice in regulation at home over the last 17 games.
Edmonton, though, is unlikely to be concerned about San Jose having home ice. The Oilers won twice at Joe Louis Arena in the first round en route to stunning the Detroit Red Wings, a veteran team that boasted the NHL’s best record and a wealth of playoff experience, in six games.
“We’re not an eighth seed,” Oilers forward Ethan Moreau said. “We have a belief in here that it’s about us and our best will be good enough in any series we play.”
A concern for the Sharks on Sunday could be rust after having a week off, but San Jose hopes its powerful top line led by Thornton and Johnathan Cheechoo, red-hot second-line center Patrick Marleau and goaltender Vesa Toskala continue to carry the team on its recent run.
The Sharks hope Marleau in particular hasn’t lost his timing during the extended break. He scored seven goals in the last four games against Nashville, including the winner in Game 5, and has a team-leading eight playoff points.
Thornton, a finalist for league MVP with an NHL-best 125 points, and Cheechoo, tops in the league with 56 goals, combined for only two goals and six assists in the first round—which could be viewed as a negative for the Oilers, considering the NHL’s two most prolific scorers are bound to start producing at some point.
“It’s going to be important for us to shut down those big guys,” said Oilers defenseman Chris Pronger, who may spend much of the series matched up against Thornton and Cheechoo’s line.
Edmonton will also have to find a way to solve Toskala, who took over when longtime No. 1 goalie Evgeni Nabokov was injured and won a career-best 23 games while finishing ninth in the NHL with a 2.56 goals-against average.
Toskala earned at least a point in 27 of his final 29 regular-season starts and won his final seven starts in a row, tying the longest winning streak in club history. He carried his hot play into the playoffs, allowing only 10 goals in five games against the Predators for a 2.01 GAA.
“I don’t feel absolutely anything special right now,” Toskala said. “It’s been pretty level. It’s so much easier when you play all the time. I feel very good about it right now.”
The Oilers will rely on the speed and puck movement that keyed the upset of the Red Wings. Edmonton’s quick forwards always seemed a step ahead of an older Detroit team, which appeared worn down by the Oilers in the final game.
Edmonton trailed 2-0 after two periods of that contest, but scored four times in the final 20 minutes to win 4-3 at Rexall Place on Monday night. Fernando Pisani, who scored a team-high five goals against the Wings, and Ales Hemsky, who led the Oilers with 77 points during the regular season, each scored twice.
While Toskala has unexpectedly led the Sharks’ surge into the semifinal round, the Oilers have gotten outstanding goaltending from an even more surprising source. Dwayne Roloson, acquired from Minnesota at the trade deadline to provide a steady veteran presence in net, has been more than the Oilers could have hoped for.
Roloson, 36, posted a 2.50 GAA in the first round against the NHL’s highest-scoring regular season team, and has given Edmonton confidence in goal after Jussi Markkanen, Ty Conklin and Michael Morrison failed to give the team consistency at the position for much of the season.
Roloson faced the Sharks in his first start in an Oilers uniform, allowing five goals on 31 shots in a 5-2 loss March 9.
The Oilers are in the semifinals for the first time since 1998 and haven’t made the finals since 1992, when they were swept by Chicago.
Edmonton and San Jose will be meeting for the first time in the postseason.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Oilers - 8th seed; beat Detroit Red Wings 4-2, West quarterfinals. Sharks - 5th seed; beat Nashville Predators 4-1, West quarterfinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Oilers - Pisani, 5 goals; Shawn Horcoff, 6 assists; Horcoff and Pronger, 7 points; Marc-Andre Bergeron, 10 PIM. Sharks - Marleau, 7 goals and 8 points; Tom Preissing, 6 assists; Ville Nieminen, 20 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Oilers - Power play: 21.6 percent (8 for 37). Penalty killing: 80.0 percent (32 for 40). Sharks - Power play: 24.3 percent (9 for 37). Penalty killing: 81.3 percent (26 for 32).
GOALTENDERS: Oilers - Roloson (4-2, 2.49 GAA); Markkanen (no appearances). Sharks - Toskala (4-1, 2.01 GAA); Nabokov (no appearances).
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Oilers, 3-1. The Oilers took the first three games, two in a shootout and the third by one goal in regulation. The Sharks earned a 5-2 victory in the final meeting March 9. Marleau and Thornton each had three goals and an assist in the series, while Horcoff had two goals for Edmonton.