SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP)—The San Jose Sharks pushed the Predators to the brink of playoff elimination with solid fundamental hockey from everybody—and a dash of dazzling skill from Milan Michalek, who’s quickly becoming Nashville’s nightmare.
Michalek scored two goals, Evgeni Nabokov made 23 saves and the Sharks took a commanding lead in their first-round series with a 3-2 victory over the Predators in Game 4 on Wednesday night.
San Jose went up 3-1 in the series with another exhibition of speed, physical play and stellar goaltending—everything the stunned Predators did so well during an excellent season that could be over Friday night.
Michalek did most of the offensive damage on assists from Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo, his higher-profile linemates. Michalek scored in each of the first two periods, and San Jose hung on with strong third-period defense.
“My game, I just try to use all the speed I can,” said Michalek, who has tormented Nashville with four goals in four playoff games. “We try to get the puck down low and make them work every minute. That pays off at the end.”
Rookie Joe Pavelski also scored his first playoff goal for the Sharks. Mike Grier and Curtis Brown were just as important killing penalties and making life miserable for the Predators’ vaunted offensive talent.
Game 5 in the best-of-seven series is Friday in Nashville, where the Sharks will attempt to close out the Predators in five games for the second straight spring.
“Definitely, there was some misfortune for us today,” said Tomas Vokoun, who made 20 saves for Nashville. “I thought it was a pretty even game. They just got the breaks. … (Our) puck bounces on the goal line and doesn’t go in. They throw the puck in from the back of the net, it hits a skate and goes in.”
Jason Arnott scored his first goal of the series for the frustrated Predators, who are winless in seven road playoff games in franchise history. Scott Hartnell scored with 2:52 left when the Predators pulled Vokoun for a 6-on-4 power play, but the Sharks coolly finished the final minutes without much trouble.
Nashville, which finished third overall in the regular season, hasn’t won in its last 10 trips to the Shark Tank. With a two-goal deficit in the third period, the Predators were forced into a desperate, gambling game—hardly the strength of a veteran club.
“Some of our passes, we tried to push something that wasn’t there,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. “Sometimes you try to hit the home run when you need to hit a bunch of singles. Once we got that reeled in, we were all right again.”
Left wing Martin Erat was scratched from the Preds’ lineup after injuring his right leg in Game 3, but rookie forward Alexander Radulov returned after missing the last game under suspension. None of it helped Nashville’s forwards create trouble for San Jose.
Nabokov kept the Sharks comfortable with another outstanding performance, even though San Jose’s once-dominant power play went 0-for-5 to drop to 1-for-23 in the series. The Sharks’ 5-on-5 play was good enough to make up for it— though not without some tense moments late.
“In the third period, I thought we were even better,” Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. “I don’t think they even had a chance until the last power play. These games, they seem like they last for six or seven hours when you’re coaching.”
After getting pushed around in a Game 3 loss, Nashville was more aggressive to start Game 4. But San Jose took the lead just 3 1/2 minutes in when Michalek converted Thornton’s pass from behind the net.
After Pavelski and Arnott traded goals 86 seconds apart, the Sharks reclaimed their two-goal lead in the second period moments after a power play ended. Michalek drove the net to deflect the puck off Kimmo Timonen’s skate and underneath Vokoun.
Thornton received a nasty cut over his eye during the final minute of play. … Paul Kariya hasn’t scored a goal in four games for Nashville, and Bill Guerin hasn’t found the net for San Jose. … NHL commissioner Gary Bettman attended the game and expressed cautious optimism for the sport’s television ratings during the postseason.