In 2011, the last time the San Jose Sharks made the Western Conference Final, special teams played an enormous role in their demise, as the Canucks scored nine times on the power play and ended the series in five games.
Only a few Sharks are left from that 2011 squad, but the importance of special teams was on display again in Game 1 of the 2016 conference final. San Jose went 0-for-3 on the power play, the St. Louis Blues went 1-for-2, and the Sharks lost the game, 2-1.
“St. Louis’ penalty killing did nothing we haven’t seen before this season,” said Sharks coach Pete DeBoer. “When our power play doesn’t score, it’s either the goaltending is great or our execution is off. I think it was a little bit of both last night. But we’ve always managed to fix that. I have confidence we’re going to get that fixed for next game.”
According to forward Logan Couture, San Jose’s biggest problem in Game 1 was gaining the zone and getting set up. That’s when the Sharks are at their most dangerous, when they can throw the puck around and open shooting lanes for the likes of Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski.
“Last night our entries needed to be better,” Couture said. “I think we stalled on the left side entering the zone.”
While Couture, like his coach, is confident that the Sharks can “figure it out,” it’s worth noting that the Blues had the second-ranked PK during the regular season, and their stinginess has carried through into the playoffs. The Stars went just 2-for-20 with the man advantage in the second round.
The Sharks’ power play, unlike the Stars’, couldn’t be stopped in the second round. It converted eight times in seven games versus Nashville, and that was after scoring five times in five games versus the Kings.
And in a remark that may have been intended for the ears of the Game 2 referees, DeBoer said he expects the rule book to be called “accordingly” against the big-hitting, beard-tugging Blues.
“We’re relying on the officials to do their job,” he said. “St. Louis is one of the most penalized teams in the league, regular season and playoffs. They need to call the game accordingly. Need to make them pay a price for being the most penalized team on the power play, which we didn’t last night.”
That, predictably, got a response from Blues coach Ken Hitchcock.
“We’re told not to whine for calls, so we’re not going to whine for calls,” he said. “If Pete wants to do it, that’s up to him, but we’re not doing it.”
All that gamesmanship underscored one main point — special teams could very well decide which of these teams gets to the Stanley Cup Final.