There's nothing harder in hockey than getting that fourth win.
That's the task that awaits the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks as they meet up in their Game 7 showdown on Thursday night (9:00 ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS).
The winner moves on to the Western Conference Finals and a meeting with the St. Louis Blues.
For the Preds, it would mark the first time in franchise history that they would advance beyond the second round. And for the Sharks, it could be their last kick at the can with their current core.
Here are seven points to ponder ahead of a potential classic:
“We worked all year for home ice advantage in this situation,” San Jose coach Pete DeBoer said on Tuesday. “And we intend to take advantage of it.”
Home hasn't always been friendly to the Sharks. They struggled at SAP Center during the regular season, winning just 18 of 41 games in their own barn. But they've started to settle in for the playoffs, with four straight victories, including all three games in this series.
That seems to stack the odds against the Preds. But this is a team that's proven it can win on the road. Nashville took three out of four from Anaheim at the Honda Center in the first round, including a decisive 2–1 win in Game 7.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne says it's just a matter of sticking to their game plan. “Especially in Game Two, I think we played a really strong game in their building,” he said. “We played a lot of games throughout the year in their building, and I think we should feel comfortable going in there and stealing one. It’s just the one game, and I don’t really care where we play that last game.”
Building on their best
The Preds have earned some big wins over the years, but Game 6 will be remembered as one of their finest. After falling behind early on a pair of Chris Tierney goals, Nashville dominated the final 40-plus minutes, outshooting the Sharks 27-10 down the stretch and outscoring them, 4-1 on the way to evening the series at three wins apiece.
More to the point, the Preds didn't crumble under the weight of the moment, and thus separated themselves from every Nashville team that's come before it.
There's something special about this group, which set a franchise record in Game 6 with its seventh playoff win in a single season. Whatever else it lacks, it's not wanting for self confidence. There's a genuine belief they can deliver another effort like the one that got them to Game 7.
“Throughout these games, we’ve had guys in this room make some real character plays,” said forward Ryan Johansen. “Whether it’s [defensive] zone, our goalie, offensive zone, blocking shots. You know, it’s a lot of fun. We feel like we have a group that can do something special.”
Shots, and keep 'em coming
Nine shots through the final 40 minutes? The Sharks know that kind of effort won't get it done in Game 7. The solution? One of the oldest clichés in the book: Get pucks deep and win board battles.
"We didn't get enough pucks in deep," Tierney said after Game 6. "We didn't win enough battles along the wall, stick battles. They get turnovers and are coming hard at us. When we do that, we're in trouble. That's not our game. We can't be doing that. We've got to change that."
Once those battles are won, the Sharks want to keep things simple by putting pucks toward Rinne and forcing him to make stops.
Despite what his Game 6-winning OT snipe might suggest, the rookie winger is hardly an offensive force. What he is, at this point anyway, is a magnet for attention who is more valuable without the puck than with it. He buzzes around, banging and crashing and aggravating opposing players, and in the process he creates space and opportunity for his linemates.
Looking to light a fire under struggling forwards Johansen and Filip Forsberg , coach Peter Laviolette moved Arvidsson up to replace Craig Smith on the top line for Game 6. The new combo clicked, especially when it was on the ice against Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun. With the Sharks holding last change, the Nashville trio is likely to see more of Brent Burns and Paul Martin in this one, and that's a less favorable matchup. Still, there's a spark here. The key is for Arvidsson to keep it simple and do what he does best. Skate fast, get pucks to the net and let the Sharks know he's out there. If he sticks to that, it'll free up Forsberg (one goal, –8 in the series) and Johansen. Nashville's first line could make a difference.
Hold a lead
The Sharks are a lot like that car reservation agent in the classic bit from Seinfeld. They know how to take a lead. They just aren't very good at holding it. And that’s really the most important part of the lead, the holding.
San Jose was up at some point in each of the three games it has lost in this series, including twice in Game 6, but couldn't close the deal. That's surprising given the veteran experience on this roster, one that averages out as one of the oldest in the league at 28.6 years. It also speaks to Nashville's resilience and ability to ramp up the pressure when behind. Both qualities will be tested in Game 7.
Clock is ticking
Speaking of San Jose's aging roster, it's pretty clear that this might be the last best opportunity for players like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau to make a run at the Cup. A win tonight and they're halfway to that goal.
Thornton has four assists in the past three games, but hasn't been the force against Nashville that he was in the first round versus the Kings. Will the extra day off between games (thanks, Selena Gomez!) ramp up the energy that's been lacking lately? And what about Marleau? He had his legs moving in San Jose's 5–1 Game 5 victory, pacing the Sharks with a goal and an assist, but was a non-factor in Game 6. Can he find that level again with the series, and maybe his Cup dreams, on the line?
Both players will enter next season on the final year of their contracts. The window's closing. Can they keep it open a little longer?
Heroes in waiting
Someone's going to step up tonight and carry their team to victory.
For the Sharks, look to Joel Ward. The former Predator has a history of making noise in the playoffs, including a series-clinching overtime goal in Game 7 to lead his Capitals past the defending champion Bruins in 2012. Ward has just one goal in this series, but he's a player who does his best work around the crease, which is exactly where Rinne is most vulnerable.
For the Preds, it could be Forsberg's night. Nashville's leading scorer during the regular season (33-31-64) has pulled up a seat while the Colin Wilson-Mike Fisher-James Neal line has done all the heavy lifting during the postseason. With Arvidsson muddying the waters, the opportunity will be there for Forsberg to claim his moment.