In an arena that has held a lot of so-so hockey this season, Wednesday night in Vancouver was a gift for all those in attendance. Two teams, so closely matched, the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks, two teams getting older, two teams desperate to crack through at least a round of the playoffs to assuage their postseason failings of recent years.
The want, on both sides, was palpable from the start, and the zest was clear in much of the play. The Canucks played it physical and rang up 40 hits before it was over. It was the Sharks who opened stronger, however, driving play in the first, before the momentum was completely wrested back by the home team in the second. Through it all, the men in net, San Jose's Antti Niemi and Vancouver's surprise starter, Roberto Luongo, held fast through various bursts of pressure. The third was something more of a grudge match – but it was the lower-seeded team, with the terrible record on the road, that won it.
With the 3-1 victory, the Sharks scored the first and possibly the most significant blood in this mirror series. The defeat marks Vancouver's fifth consecutive home loss in the playoffs, going back to Game 7 two years ago in the final against Boston and including all three home games last spring versus Los Angeles. It's early – but it could be decisive, given San Jose's considerable strength at home.
For Vancouver, Friday night's Game 2 becomes basically a must-win. The Canucks have to find their rhythm.
"We were five, 10 per cent off in everything we did," said Canucks captain Henrik Sedin after the game.
Ryan Kesler, who played many minutes but did not dominate, hobbled by possible illness or injury, wore the disappointment of not defending home ice on his face.
"We need to take care of the third period in our own building," said Kesler of letting a one-one tie turn into an loss.
In the Sharks room, San Jose's Joe Thornton credited strong work by Luongo, who held the Canucks in the game early, but said perserverence won. It was, Thornton said, "a good effort, staying relaxed, and waiting for our chances."
Minds will turn to the question of Cory Schneider, still injured and not even on the bench on Wednesday night, though it was hardly the play of Luongo that was to blame for the loss. The winner, with the game tied 1-1, came midway through the third, in a pile of players in front of the Vancouver net. Luongo was on the ice, as was San Jose's Sammy Wingels, who managed to wave his stick to push the puck out in the open. With Andrew Desjardins of the Sharks holding court in the middle of the crease, standing over Luongo, there was a lot of net to look at for Dan Boyle, who had darted in and easily buried the puck for the lead, and the win.
It was a disheartening moment for the Canucks, who had revived themselves from a slow start. In the second period, Vancouver displayed an offensive punch that was almost wholly absent in the first. The Canucks fired 29 pucks at the Sharks net in the middle frame, more than triple the eight put toward Luongo. It was a complete reversal from the first period, when it was 27-11 Sharks in terms of pucks at the net. Still, for Vancouver in the second, the energy produced only one goal, and while the Canucks put the push on, there were unimpressive moments from the likes of the Sedins, both of whom had great looks at Niemi but hesitated, perhaps waiting for something more perfect, before the moment had passed, and the scoring chance neutralized.
The second-period press, fairly consistent through the period, led to the first goal of the night. After an exchange of hits in the Vancouver end, the Canucks rushed ahead and a Kevin Bieska slap shot from a Jannik Hansen pass set the goal in motion. Niemi made the first save but a melee ensued, before Mason Raymond bumped Niemi in the head and knocked him on his backside, incidental contact, perhaps, but enough that the ensuing goal was questionable. Amid the swarm of bodies, Hansen hacked at the puck – and initially got credit for the goal – but it appeared former Canuck and current Shark Raffi Torres was responsible for pushing it into his own net. The credit for the goal was later revised to Bieksa, unassisted.
After the game, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said the Canucks have to shore up their game on numerous fronts, faceoffs, penalty killing, and goal scoring -- half-ruefully noting that Vancouver's only goal was scored by San Jose.
"I know our guys can play better than they did tonight," said Vigneault.
Four minutes after the Bieksa-Torres goal, the Sharks responded with a goal as pretty as the Canucks's marker was ugly. On a power play – after a sloppy and needless Zack Kassian roughing penalty – the Sharks were able to easily move the puck around the offensive zone and a Dan Boyle pass to Logan Couture was buried. Couture, from about 15 metres out, sent a wrist shot on a zipline to the top left corner, Luongo somewhat screened by his own defence, Bieksa, but really there wasn't much chance at all for the goaltender.
The whole thing took place before a not-quite-full arena. The Canucks have claimed a sell-out streak running 432 games for the 18,910-capacity Rogers Arena, going back more than a decade, since November, 2002 – but tickets were available on Ticketmaster an hour before the puck dropped and a smattered of white towel-draped empty seats stood sentinel in the lower bowl through the game. The lower bowel was actually half-empty 10 minutes before the game before it quickly filled up and the crowd in attendance bellowed some jubilance, welcoming their team to the ice with an especially hearted "Luuuuuuuuuu!" for the long-time-starter-turned-backup-turned-unexpected-playoff-starter. Still, late in the third, attendance of 18,910 was claimed, another so-called sellout. The Canucks on the ice would have preferred a victory.