The Vancouver Canucks have skated to within a victory from advancing to their first Stanley Cup final since 1994 after they exhibited their superiority in a bizarre special teams battle with the San Jose Sharks on Sunday.
In front of a loud and proud assembly of an estimated 4,000 Vancouver fans among the 17,562 sellout crowd at HP Pavilion, the Canucks scored a playoff record trio of 5-on-3 power-play goals in the second period and needed only 13 shots on goal (a franchise record low) to propel them to a 4-2 win and 3-1 series lead in the West final.
To make matters worse for the Sharks, who have dropped six of their last eight games, they lost Joe Thornton to injury after a shoulder-to-shoulder hit by Vancouver left wing Raffi Torres midway through the third period. In his post-game remarks, Sharks head coach Todd McLellan did not know the extent of Thornton’s condition.
In order for the Canucks to reach the point in the second period when Ryan Kesler and Sami Salo, with two, fired in the power-play goals in a club playoff record minute and 55 seconds apart, Vancouver’s penalty-killing unit kept the Sharks at bay in their five consecutive power-play chances in the opening 24:06 of the game.
The Canucks shut off passing and shooting lanes and made life miserable for the Sharks, who are now in danger of losing their third conference final in six seasons. The Sharks didn’t help their situation with a lack of execution in the man-advantage situations.
"It was another special teams war," said Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa, referring to the three power-play goals San Jose scored compared to the two from the Canucks in the Sharks 4-3 win in Game 3 on Friday.
"You come out with the mindset of keeping it five-on-five. But the game did not dictate that. Just like the other night [when the Canucks yielded 10 power-play opportunities to San Jose] I did not think we were undisciplined. You could argue all those calls. It was just the way they called them."
The lack of power-play success took its toll on the Sharks, who were five-for-five to start the series but now have scored only once in their last 13 man-advantage situations.
After they flubbed their fifth straight chance early in the second period the penalties went the other way. A Dany Heatley high-sticking infraction, followed by a Torrey Mitchell hook, a too-many-men-on-the-ice call, a delay-of-game when defenceman Douglas Murray flipped the puck over the glass and a Patrick Marleau interference penalty gave the Canucks plenty of 5-on-3 time.
In the regular season the Canucks had the league’s best power play but scored only one 5-on-3 goal in nine opportunities.
They sure took advantage of the situation on Sunday with the right-handed shot of Salo giving them a different look. He was employed late in a 5-on-3 power-play in the previous game, but the Canucks didn’t score in that critical stage.
With the left-shooting Christian Ehrhoff out of the line-up with a shoulder injury, Salo shone with two blasts set up by Henrik Sedin. Sedin also slid a pass to Kesler for his goal and setup Alexandre Burrows with a wonderful goal-mouth pass through the legs of San Jose goalie Antti Niemi on a 2-on-1 rush in the third period for a franchise record four assists to give him a club record nine for the series.
"I don't think it matters who is playing the point when he has the puck," Salo said.
The Canucks were not only without Ehrhoff, but also Aaron Rome, due to a head injury. Canucks coach Alain Vigneault decided to replace them with Keith Ballard and rookie Chris Tanev over Andrew Alberts because Tanev can play the right side.
But Tanev would end up playing only 9:13 and Ballard was at 10:34 because of all the time spent on the special teams.