The San Jose Sharks once again exorcised some demons on Thursday night by blowing out the Nashville Predators 5-0 in Game 7.
Winning the second-round series over the Predators wasn't the same as knocking out long-time rival Los Angeles in the first round (when you consider all the recent history between the two California teams), but winning a Game 7 was big for the Sharks.
Team Teal has often been criticized for being unable to win the big game and had lost their two most recent Game 7 appearances, both against Los Angeles.
While a snooze-fest to the casual fan because of the lopsided score, there were plenty of takeaways from San Jose's Game 7 victory. Without further ado, here are my top seven.
1. San Jose's Fourth Line Played Big
San Jose's new-look fourth-line unit of Dainius Zubrus, Nick Spaling and Tommy Wingels delivered a big performance on Thursday, both literally and metorphically.
Zubrus has shown a willingness all year to use his large six-foot, five-inch, 225-pound frame to his advantage by crushing opposing defensemen into the end boards. Not only is he physical, but the long-time top-six forward has the offensive skill to make plays as well.
With Matt Nieto unable to play Thursday due to injury, we got our first look at a fourth line with Zubrus playing opposite of Tommy Wingels. While Tommy is much smaller than Zubrus at six-feet even, 195 pounds, he plays a similar physical brand of hockey. These two playing together is something yours truly has wanted to see for quite awhile. Through one game, it was an effecitive combination.
Along with speedy centerman Nick Spaling, these three had one particular memorable shift where Zubrus and Wingels had the puck pinned deep in the Nashville zone against the Predators top pair of Roman Josi and Shea Weber. With the puck clogged up along the boards, it wasn't necessarily a physically draining shift for Josi and Weber, but it can certainly be mentally draining for a team to have their best defensemen on the ice and be unable to get going on offense against the opponent's worst line.
Shortly after holding the puck along the boards for what seemed like an eternity, Weber ended up tripping Zubrus and the Sharks would go on the power play thanks to the effort from their 10th, 11th and 12th forwards. This is the kind of depth that pays off in the playoffs and San Jose is getting some consistently good efforts from the bottom of their roster.
2. Shea Weber No Longer Elite?
Lots of hockey folk still like to believe that Shea Weber is an elite defenseman, but his horrid performance in Game 7 wasn't an aberration. Outside of his prowess on the power play, Weber took a number of bad penalties throughout the series. Not to mention, despite almost exclusively playing with an elite partner in Roman Josi, Weber's possession numbers the last few years are quite average. Josi has elite skating ability and offensive skill, and there is argument to be had that Weber is actually dragging him down at this point in his career.
3. Clutch Cheese
If it weren't for Justin Williams being known as Mr. Game 7, that nick name would likely belong to Joel Ward. The veteran winger is second only to Williams in reputation for clutch playoff goals. Known to some as Wardo and others as "the Big Cheese", Ward scored two flashy goals in this series including the second goal of Game 7.
Ward's consistent ability to raise his production in the playoffs is quite fascinating. If I remember correctly, somewhere on the internet recently there was a graphic showing Ward at the very top or near the top in points-per-game increase from the regular season to the postseason. In his career, Ward's PPG rate in the regular season is .44. In the playoffs that number jumps up nearly 50% to .64. Through 12 games in this postseason, Ward has seven points, for a .58 PPG.
4. Pekka Rinne's Outbursts
Pekka Rinne has a reputation as being one of the nicer guys in the league. In this series though his on ice actions didn't match that view from those who cover the Predators on a regular basis. Particularly in Thursday's Game 7, there were three separate instances that were a tad excessive.
The first of which came right before the first goal of the game when Rinne knocked Joe Pavelski down from behind. These two played together in Europe during the most recent lockout and had become friends. One has to wonder if that friendship has gone south the way Logan Couture and Drew Doughty's seems to have gone.
On the very next goal, Rinne goes after Chris Tierney as Tierney was hugging Joel Ward in celebration. Tierney doesn't even touch Rinne on his way by skating to celebrate with Ward. Why Rinne was so vividly upset is beyond me. Sure, goal celebrations aren't usually done right in the crease like that but Rinne had come way out of the crease to try and make the save so getting upset about the goal hug seemed a bit petty.
And finally, everyone saw Rinne break his stick with multiple slashes to his own goal post after giving up the fifth goal of the night to Patrick Marleau. Slamming the stick once in frustration is one thing, but multiple swings at the post and then chucking it behind the net before skating off is the epitome of poor sportsmanship.
5. Awful Officiating
There were far too many missed calls in this game. In actuality, it wasn't that they were missed, the bigger issue is that they were plain ignored. Nashville got away with some big time hits that were clearly interference minors as the Sharks players on the receiving end didn't and sometimes never even had the puck.
Furthermore, on the Sharks end, Joe Pavelski blatantly punched Paul Gaustad right after a faceoff and the refs simply didn't call it. It certainly looked like Gaustad was also holding Pavelski's stick. If the referees are going to let these calls go, then the players are going to keep trying to push the boundaries of how much cheating they can get away with.
6. Patrick Marleau Back in the Top Six
Marleau received a lot of flack this season for not scoring a whole lot at even strength. It was his second year in a row with a pretty putrid plus/minus rating. However, most of the season Marleau played on a third line with Ward and Matt Nieto. Neither Ward nor Nieto have the high-end play-making skills that Marleau's past linemates like Thornton and Logan Couture possess. Marleau certainly isn't playing at the level he once did as he ages, but he can still put the puck in the net when paired with high-end linemates.
For most of the series Marleau was centering the third line until head coach Peter DeBoer bumped him back up to the Couture line for Game 5. While Game 6 was a dud for Marleau on that second line, he was nothing short of phenomenal in Games 5 and 7. Marleau finished with two points in each of those games with both his goals coming at even strength. The Game 5 goal came via a brilliant dish from Jonas Donskoi and in Game 7 Couture set Marleau up nicely as the two forwards executed a pretty give and go.
7. Thornton & Marleau Write New Narrative
Despite actually having solid postseason statistics, Thornton and Marleau have been the national media whipping boys for the Sharks past playoff failures. When those critics are shown that their playoff numbers aren't actually that bad, they respond with the fact that they do most of their scoring early in playoff series and not in big games like Game 7s.
Well, at least for one Game 7, Thornton and Marleau can say that they delivered when it mattered most. Both players finished with a goal and an assist in the 5-0 win. Sure their goals were the fourth and fifth of the game in a 5-0 blowout, but they both assisted on Joe Pavelski's power-play goal that opened the scoring and held up as the game-winning goal.