The Sharks Wanted Nothing More Than To Ruin Vegas’s Shit
12:56 PM EDT on April 25, 2022
It's hard for a team long eliminated from playoff contention to find meaning in the late days of the regular season, but credit to the San Jose Sharks, their pettiness has helped grant them some joy just before the golf clubs came out of the garage. On Sunday against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Sharks came back from 3-1 and 4-2 deficits to win in a shootout, rob their newest rivals of a critical point, and all but pop champagne in the dressing room.
To understand last night's game, though, we must first go back to ... well, I'd go as far as to say 1994. That was the first year the Sharks franchise made the playoffs, and also their first major success, as they upset the Red Wings as the eighth seed in seven games before falling to the Leafs in the second round. From that moment on, the Sharks have been a consistent presence in the NHL postseason, but rarely if ever did they string together more than one series win. Even when they made it to their first-ever and to-date-only Stanley Cup Final, in 2016, they could not manage to top the Penguins.
Flash forward to 2018. The Sharks are fighting like hell to keep that title window open, and in the second round they run into some upstarts from just a little to the east: the Golden Knights. In their inaugural season, the Knights have unexpectedly finished first in the Pacific Division they share with the Sharks, and on the back of Marc-Andre Fleury and his shutout in Game 6, Vegas knocks out San Jose and advances to the conference final—something the Sharks couldn't manage until their 13th year of existence.
San Jose got their revenge in the first round of the 2019 playoffs, coming back from a 3-1 series deficit and winning a ridiculous Game 7 mainly because they scored four goals in four minutes after a controversial major penalty on Cody Eakin. Again, though, the Sharks could only reach the third round, and while they haven't seen the playoffs since, their neighbors have won four series in the last two years, and at the start of 2021–22, they looked poised to again be Cup contenders.
Instead everything went wrong for Vegas, as they suffered a brutally injury-ridden season marked by goalie problems and an inability to get all their pricey pieces out on the ice at the same time. This left them on the fringes of the playoff chase, hanging in that ninth spot behind Dallas and Nashville for the wild card. And one of the teams who stood in the way of making up that gap was the 31-35-12 Sharks, who, credit to them, did not try to act all cool and pretend this was just another game.
“The season’s still not finished, so I still want to do well in those last couple of games, especially tomorrow, you know, the biggest game of the year against Vegas," said Timo Meier, the Sharks' top scorer. “We can maybe knock them out of the playoffs."
This was, given the standings, practically at least a Game 6 for the Golden Knights, and emotionally a Game 7 for the Sharks. And boy did it deliver. After the Sharks opened the scoring, Vegas responded with three straight, the last coming at the exact midway point of the second period. The vibes in the Knights' building felt nice and relieved. Nick Bonino managed one for the Sharks before the intermission, but Nicolas Roy responded early on in the third to make it 4-2. That lead stood firm until there were just over two minutes remaining. Cue the Jaws theme.
A wrist shot from way downtown, again off the stick of Bonino, somehow floated into the net to cut the lead to 4-3. And then at literally the last possible second, just as Vegas thought they were about to escape, a tap-in from Meier after the puck traveled off the boards around the back of the net forced an unbelievable overtime. It's hard to watch the path that this goal takes, particularly after all the misfortune the Knights have already been dealt, and think that the universe has any affection for Vegas. Call it karma, I guess, for all the poor souls bested by the slot machines.
The still-determined Knights outshot the Sharks 6-1 in overtime, but nothing got past the goalies, even when a slash on a William Karlsson breakaway let Vegas play the final 97 seconds with an extra man. The first five attempts of the shootout were the same story. Vegas missed three, and the Sharks missed two. That left Thomas Bordeleau, a 20-year-old who had made his NHL debut just a week ago, against Logan Thompson in net for VGK.
Let us briefly digress to explain Logan Thompson. He, too, is a rookie—the team's third option heading into the year—and his presence in this enormously impactful moment is a microcosm of Vegas's season. Last year the Knights had Marc-Andre Fleury as their main man in goal, and against all odds the old-timer delivered one last incredible, Vezina-capturing season for them. When he departed because the Knights needed salary cap space (and still do), Robin Lehner was the obvious heir. After an up-and-down start to his career, the Swede helped the Islanders to a shock playoff trip in 2019, then played very well for half a season in Chicago before Vegas picked him up at the deadline. After a decent 2020 playoffs, however, Lehner lost the starting gig to the resurgent Fleury and had to settle for the role of able, expensive backup. Finally, though, 2021–22 looked to be his year, but instead Lehner has been less reliable than in any year since before New York, posting a save percentage of just .907. (Laurent Brossoit, the second-stringer acquired from Winnipeg, has been a mix of injured and not that good.)
Lehner, still, seemed like the first choice to start this Sharks game. He was getting paid like the guy you ice in a do-or-die situation, and Thompson hadn't been setting the world on fire, but weirdness ensued after Lehner got pulled for no apparent reason after one period of the Knights game last Wednesday. First was the news from multiple reporters on Friday that Lehner had been playing through pain and would undergo season-ending surgery. Then his coach, Pete DeBoer, claimed that was the first he'd heard of it. Nobody seemed to know what was going on, but apparently, per Elliotte Friedman, Lehner was simply upset at the way he had been treated and wanted to close the book on the year. He went on to miss practice on Saturday. But then, when the dust cleared, Lehner was nevertheless dressed and on the bench as Thompson's backup for Sunday.
Anyway, Bordeleau faked glove side, then crossed over to his backhand while avoiding Thompson's poke check, depositing the puck over the line and leaving the goalie demoralized, face down on the ice. It was ruthless and cold-blooded, the kind of moment that fuels rivalry hatred for years. And if, down the line, these roles end up reversed near the end of a regular season, you can bet Vegas will remember this as they lace up their skates.
"I know I've never seen the room as happy and as joyful," Sharks coach Bob Boughner said after the game. He's been a part of this team for nearly three years! Meanness gives the Sharks life! They love to drag their vile foes down to their level!
Vegas, however, did get one point, and they technically aren't finished. But as they continue to try and scrap for the right to an ass-kicking from the Avalanche, they've now been thrust into an absolute must-win situation against the Stars on Tuesday. Either way, the Knights will finish with a much better record than the Sharks this year. But it sure feels like San Jose won the season.
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