VANCOUVER, BC - MAY 15: Raffi Torres #13 of the Vancouver Canucks checks Niclas Wallin #7 of the San Jose Sharks in the first period in Game One of the Western Conference Finals during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Arena on May 15, 2011 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
The San Jose Sharks may be in the Western Conference Final, but their inability to hold leads late has made it a bumpy road here. Game 1 followed this pattern; what can they do to change this?
The big question going into Game 1 of the Western Conference Final was how the schedule would affect the Vancouver Canucks and the San Jose Sharks -- namely, would each team's situation (Vancouver's nearly week-long layoff, San Jose's emotional Game 7 victory over Detroit) help or hurt them?
As it turns out, both teams came out firing -- for two periods. With the drop of the puck in the third period, San Jose's puck-possession game turned into a prevent defense, as Vancouver carried the momentum for the bulk of the third period. Vancouver turned this surge into two goals and a come-from-behind 3-2 win.
Losing the first game of a series is far from a series crusher; however, the way the Sharks lost has to be a point of concern for San Jose's coaching staff. All season long, the biggest question regarding the Sharks was their defense. During the three-month stumble to open the 2010-11 NHL season, a frequent pattern would have the Sharks get a lead through the late second or early third period, only to watch it disintegrate before their eyes.
When the Sharks turned it around, a big part of that was the ability to play shut-down defense in the third period. Game 1's blown lead raised an eyebrow, as it followed a trend from Game 5 and Game 6 of the series against the Detroit Red Wings. Even the series-clinching first-round game againt the Los Angeles Kings featured this same inability to shut things down and hold on to the lead.
Of course, every series and situation is different, but the patterns can't be denied. For the Sharks, the insertion of Kent Huskins into the lineup didn't help. Injured since February, Huskins was about five steps too slow for the fast Vancouver forwards. Huskins took the place of Jason Demers, and the official story told to the Versus broadcast crew was that the Sharks coaching staff wanted Huskins to get his feet wet now rather than later, forcing Demers out. That tale smells of an injury cover, as Demers has transitioned from the All-Star break forward into one of the Sharks more reliable defensemen -- and he was roughed up in Game 7 against Detroit, coming back in a more limited role to finish the game.
Todd McLellan's a smart guy and he has to be aware of his team's seemingly inability to really nail the door shut on anyone. Did physical and emotional fatigue factor in during Game 1's third period? That's possible. Having a rusty Huskins (who's slow even when he's in mid-season form) for 12:58 didn't help, especially when Demers has been getting around 20 minutes each game, including time on both special teams.
A healthy Demers for Game 2 will help, but San Jose has to tread carefully. A split in Vancouver would certainly be considered a success, but the Sharks don't want to appear like they've peaked too early. There are simple things they can do to make it a series: more physical play on the forecheck, fewer dumb penalties (see: Dany Heatley), and smarter chip-outs in the defensive zone. But if San Jose has to rely on a rusty Huskins for 12-15 minutes again, then they may have a bigger-picture problem than that.
For more on the NHL's Western Conference Final, check in with our Sharks vs. Canucks series hub, as well as our blogs: Fear The Fin covering the Sharks and Nucks Misconduct covering the Canucks. You can find more local coverage at SB Nation Bay Area and Battle of California.