After an absence of 11 years, the Edmonton Oilers broke the NHL’s longest playoff drought this season to grant Connor McDavid the first taste of postseason action on his burgeoning career. The 19-year-old could have hardly projected a more challenging opponent to serenade a fiery baptism, with last year’s Stanley Cup runners-up, the San Jose Sharks, standing in his way.
However, Peter DeBoer’s seasoned group ended the regular season banged-up and limping to the finish line, and they wouldn’t be able to muster enough to hinder the enthusiasm of a bunch of kids eyeing some prom shenanigans. Back in 2006, the Oilers ousted the Sharks in six games on their way to the Cup final and this season the outcome was the same. Only time will tell whether they have what it takes to go that far again.
Game 1: San Jose Sharks 3 @ 2 Edmonton Oilers (OT)
Game 2: San Jose Sharks 0 @ 2 Edmonton Oilers
Game 3: Edmonton Oilers 1 @ 0 San Jose Sharks
Game 4: Edmonton Oilers 0 @ 7 San Jose Sharks
Game 5: San Jose Sharks 3 @ 4 Edmonton Oilers (OT)
Game 6: Edmonton Oilers 3 @ 1 San Jose Sharks
Inexperienced Oilers rebound from losses in style
Facing a team of greybeards, Edmonton’s ability to keep the emotions in check as they balanced out the highs and lows of a playoff series would determine their chances of success.
With their brand-new barn rocking in Game 1, the Oilers quickly jumped out to a two-goal lead but got caught in the frenzy to allow the Sharks to steadily battle back, tie the game and eventually prevail in overtime. It was a game that exposed how much experience can influence the momentum swings in playoff action, but the Oilers brass and, in particular, Todd McLellan, made sure the Oilers reacted the right way to adversity.
In Game 2, a thoroughly dominant performance by the hosts avoided a trip south of the border with a troublesome two-game disadvantage, and then Edmonton also responded positively in a tense, tight-checking, playoff-type Game 3 that would fall their way after a defensive zone miscue by the Sharks.
The less be said about the shellacking of Game 4 the better yet, once again, Edmonton rebounded impressively in Game 5, showing resiliency and maturity beyond the age of most of their key players. The Oilers still opened the score, but only to see San Jose notch three times in 18 minutes to take the reins of the match and, in the eyes of many, the series. Wrong. Edmonton clawed back to make it 3-3 late in the third and then snatched victory in an overtime session where they flexed their muscles (27-7 CF, 11-2 SCF).
Two crass errors by the Sharks in Game 6 generated the breach they needed to finish the job back in San Jose and they wouldn’t throw the opportunity away, hanging onto their lead until the handshakes were inevitable.
The revolving door of playoff heroes
It is an annual playoff tradition. In the heat of postseason action, where all details are accounted for and matchups step into the forefront, more times than not the best players on both sides cancel each other, vacating the stage for unheralded figures, names not used to hit the board regularly.
In this 1st round battle, Edmonton’s grunts stepped up to the task and contributed directly to all four victories, with the winning goal always coming off the stick of one of their bottom line attackers. In Game 2, rugged forward Zach Kassian broke the deadlock on a shorthanded breakaway after a mistake by Sharks captain Joe Pavelski and he would also end the stalemate with less than 10 minutes to go in Game 3, shrewdly taking advantage of a dismal defensive zone turnover.
In Game 5, with the clock ticking and the Sharks closing on a 3-2 series-lead, fourth line center David Desharnais wheeled around the offensive zone to set up Oscar Klefbom’s blast that tied the score, and later sneaked into the slot to seal the contest in overtime.
In Game 6, the honour of scoring the series-clinching goal would fall to Anton Slepyshev, who beat Martin Jones on a breakaway to give Edmonton a 2-0 lead the Sharks could only cut in half.
With Connor McDavid (4 pts, but none 5 on 5) hounded by Marc-Edouard Vlasic throughout the series, Leon Draisatl quiet for the first four games, and the second unit (Lucic-RNH-Eberle) bogged down with defensive duties against the Sharks greatest threats, Edmonton needed timely contributions from their unsung players and they answered the call at all the right times.
Hobbling and wounded, San Jose’s big guns misfire
If you take away the empty net goal in Game 6, Connor McDavid was largely ineffective at even strength, as the Vlasic/Braun pair was able to slow him down despite getting caved in possession (42.9 CF%). Neutralizing McDavid is a big step towards beating this Oilers team, yet the Sharks also needed something from their own stars and they didn’t respond.
In fact, outside of Game 4, where Joe Pavelski’s goal just 15 seconds in set the tone for the 7-0 drubbing, the Sharks top-five earners combined for just 2 goals and 5 points throughout the series and went a putrid 1-18 with the man advantage, contributing decisively for a 12-7 goal deficit that ruined their chances of advancing.
The aforementioned tally constituted the only even-strength point for captain Pavelski, while All-Star defenseman Brent Burns unloaded 28 shots but couldn’t find the back of the net or pick up a point in any of their losses. Logan Couture, who played much of the series with a full cage and a wrecked jaw, tallied twice in Game 4 but posted a single assist elsewhere, whereas Joe Thornton, miraculously suiting up for the last four matches despite a torn ACL and MCL, pitched in two assists, one of those in Game 4. Veteran Patrick Marleau performed better, scoring the go-ahead goal in Game 5 and the late mark in Game 6, but it wasn’t enough to swing any of those encounters.
After carrying the team to the Stanley Cup final last summer, the Sharks core group faltered when it mattered the most this season, and it’s likely they won’t get a chance to atone for it in the future.
Best players in the series
Cam Talbot (Edmonton Oilers)
The backbone of Edmonton’s success in the regular season was also their safety valve in the first round, cleaning several rookie mistakes and holding the fort in the instances San Jose found another gear and put the Oilers on their heels, such as in the third period of Game 6.
Beyond two crucial shutouts in Games 2 and 3, Talbot posted a 2.03 GAA and a solid 0.927 Sv% that would look even better (0.950) if not for the team’s disastrous appearance in Game 4, where he gave up 5 in 24 shots.
Tomas Hertl (San Jose Sharks)
The young Czech forward didn’t light up the scoresheet, notching just two assists in six games, but his all-around effort in the postseason was certainly encouraging as a pivotal time for the future of the franchise approaches.
Centering the Sharks second line – third unit after Thornton’s return – Hertl was heavily relied upon by Peter DeBoer for his ability to drive the puck in the right direction, logging 19:17min TOI/GP, second amongst Sharks forwards, winning 62.6% of a team-high 83 faceoffs, and compiling an excellent 59.7 SCF%. He also dished out 13 hits, blocked 6 shots and fired 15 SOG for a body of work that stands out in a disappointing team campaign.
Will the San Jose Sharks return to the playoffs next year?
With the emergence of Edmonton and Calgary, the Sharks presence at the 2018 NHL playoffs is far from guaranteed regardless of the important decisions they make this offseason.
Franchise icons Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both 37 years old, are free agents and assuming they return with something resembling their current cap hits, the team will have around 4.5M to add a couple of forwards and re-up with RFAs Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi and Chris Tierney. That would mean, though, that they’ll take another couple of swings at the piñata with one the oldest cores in the NHL, as Pavelski (33), Burns (32), Vlasic (30) and even Couture (28) are also past their premium years.
It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s probably the only pathway the Sharks can pave which doesn’t include a complete teardown, since in neither this year’s underwhelming free agency class, nor their own roster or prospect pool, they will find contributors to soothe the transition in the immediate future. If Thornton and Marleau leave, San Jose can only hope Tomas Hertl and 20-year-old RW Timo Meier evolve into standout top-six forwards or wait something else falls onto their lap.
The Sharks’ two goaltenders are under contract for 2017-18 as is all of their defence, including Brent Burns, whose monstrous 64M, 8-year extension kicks in exactly 12 months before Vlasic is scheduled to become a UFA in line for a significant upgrade on his current 4.5M annual pay check.