O Captain, My Captain
A Look at the 2019 Playoff Battle Between the San Jose Sharks and the Vegas Golden Knights
On a Tuesday night, late in April 2019, the San Jose Sharks and the Vegas Golden Knights played one of the most memorable Game 7s in sporting history. A chippy and aggressive series, the first round of playoffs for the 2019 season already had plenty of talking points. There were two players who lost teeth during the best-of-seven series and numerous players were taken back to the locker rooms during the games for various injuries. The hits were strong and plentiful; the embodiment of hockey. There was a goal scored that was quickly waived off due to goalie interference, changing the game's momentum. But it's all part of the game. Athletes put their bodies on the line every day, for an ultimate goal. Usually, these goals are personal, maybe the athletes want to create a good and stable life for their family, or they want to prove someone wrong, or win the biggest game, or create ever-lasting fame. But sometimes, playing for a teammate can be the most powerful and motivating goal.
In order to fully appreciate what happened in Game 7, we need to recap the aggressive and emotional best-of-7 series in its entirety.
Game 1 was fairly standard as far as playoff hockey games go. The San Jose Sharks ended up on top and took a 1-0 series lead. Game 2 proved to be a little more interesting. Two Sharks players would end up leaving the game due to injuries, although one of the players would later return. But what really marked the second game in the series was an overturned goal, which would have put the Sharks ahead. They had battled back from 3-0 to leading 4-3, but with a goaltender interference call, the shot was waived off and the Sharks were forced into a penalty kill. With the shift in momentum favoring the Golden Knights, Vegas pulled ahead, ultimately winning the game with a final score of 5-3.
Game 3 had another Sharks player leave due to injury and once again the Golden Knights prevailed, taking a 2-1 series lead. Taking their momentum from Game 3 into Game 4, the Golden Knights stunned the San Jose Sharks into a 5-0 shutout game. It was the 10th time in 18 games that the Knights had scored in the opening five minutes when playing the Sharks. For San Jose, things were starting to look grim. Two of their key players were out injured for the entire game and they were officially down 3-1 in the series. In Game 5 and facing elimination, the San Jose team gave everything they had, almost literally. Late in the third period, holding a 3-2 lead, Sharks player Logan Couture took a high stick to the face that knocked out two of his teeth. Originally, a call wasn't made, and even after Couture came back from the dressing room to prove that blood was drawn, there was controversy on the ice. But eventually, Vegas winger Jonathan Marchessault was lead to the penalty box. The San Jose Sharks held strong for the last five minutes or so, even scoring twice to bring their lead to 5-2 and forcing Game 6.
Game 6 was one created by the hockey gods. Sports thrive best when there is true competition. No one wants to see a quick 4 and out series in the playoffs. Even if you are the winning team, there have been cases where the extra days off end up breaking the momentum and teams struggle to jump back into the competitive field in the next round. The game wasn't high-scoring. It didn't have as many talking points as the other games. It remained scoreless for almost an entire period. In almost all aspects it wasn't an exciting game. Except that it was an elimination game. And it went into double overtime before a winner was declared. Vegas thought they played better, but San Jose ended up on top, scoring on a shorthanded goal early in the second overtime. It was edge-of-your-seat hockey. The game built tension with a fluidity that was nearly poetic. It was simple and pure and thrilling and stressful. And it led to Game 7 in San Jose.
In the final game of the series, the teams were both coming in gassed and on edge. Only two nights earlier, Game 6 had ended late. There was a morsel of luck in that Game 6 fell on a Sunday, and therefore had the earlier start time of 4 PM PST vs. the traditional 7:30 PM start time. But still, playing what would be the equivalent of a game and a half, at a ridiculously high-level of intensity wears out even the top athletes. On top of this, it would be the first time in Vegas Golden Knight's short history that they would be playing a Game 7. But it was the playoffs. There was no time for exhaustion or fatigue. It was time to play hockey.
Early in the third period, the Golden Knights sunk a beauty of a goal to take a 3-0 lead. For a brief moment, things looked like they couldn't get any worse for the San Jose Sharks. Their Stanley Cup dreams were fading from sight. Ready to give it their last bit of effort, the team prepared for a faceoff in Vegas' zone, placing one of their top players and Captain, Joe Pavelski, in the faceoff circle. The puck was dropped, sticks swinging, and after winning the faceoff, Pavelski took a high hit and landed awkwardly headfirst onto the ice. The sight was unnerving, to say the least. In hockey, traditionally, a hard hit on your teammate means you go after the offender. This time however the players seemed stunned. Pavelski attempted to get up as blood dripped from his helmet onto the ice. He was quickly surrounded by trainers as well as teammates Brent Burns, Evander Kane, and Joe Thornton. After a few moments, a handful of Sharks players began yelling at the officials as well as Cody Eakin, who seemed to have made the hit, but it was clear everyone was too shaken up to do much. Eventually, Pavelski was helped off the ice with teammate Thornton holding a towel to Pavelski's head. The officials called a five-minute Major for Cross Checking on Golden Knights Cody Eakin, plus a 10-minute Misconduct.
The entire game changed in that moment. Once the teams were relatively settled and Pavelski was back in the locker room getting checked out, the game began again. Within mere seconds the San Jose Sharks scored. The fans in the SAP Center, the Sharks home ice, went wild. That one was for Joe. With a typical penalty in hockey, one team is short-handed, having their offending player sitting in the penalty box until either the assigned time has elapsed or the opposing team scores. However, with a major penalty, as was handed out after the hit on Pavelski, the offending player must remain off the ice for the full five minutes, regardless of any goals scored. This means that even though the Sharks scored only seconds into the five minute penalty, they were able to keep their one-man advantage and continue the five-on-four play. They would go on to score three more goals in those five minutes, putting them ahead 4-3, and giving them enough of an advantage to win Game 7 and take the series.
To say that emotions were high would be an understatement. Vegas players, coaches, and fans complained that Pavelski's fall was really due to him losing his balance on the ice. San Jose Sharks players, coaches, and fans were battling their own emotions, being thrilled with winning and advancing, while also worried about Pavelski's injury. That single moment would be talked about over and over again. The series supervisor said they chose to hand down a major penalty because the cross-check caused significant injury, but later the NHL issued an apology to Vegas for the incorrect call. But that call didn't win the game for San Jose. Instead, they had to battle, scoring four goals in five minutes, and then scoring the winning goal in overtime, in order to advance to the next round. Yes the call changed the momentum of the game, but so did the injury itself. You could easily argue that even without the major penalty, simply seeing one of your teammates, your captain, motionless and bleeding could build up enough emotion to play your heart out.
Both teams wanted to win, to eventually advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and bring home the trophy. For San Jose, it would be the first time ever winning the Stanley Cup, for Vegas, it would be a second chance, after losing to the Washington Capitals the previous year. But during Game 7, San Jose was given something bigger to play for. They were playing for their captain. They didn't want his season to end that way. They wanted to win for Joe.
San Jose was unable to take it all the way to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and during the off season Joe Pavelski signed with the Dallas Stars after 13 years in San Jose. It's not quite the story movies are based on. It doesn't have that magical ending. But that doesn't mean it wasn't special. After their wild series with Vegas, they went on to play the Colorado Avalanche. It was another long series, culminating in yet another Game 7. Pavelski was a game-time decision, bringing the tension all the way to the end. He not only ended up playing, but he also scored the first goal of the game within the first minute of the game. Captain Joe was back and San Jose was all for it. They ended up winning 3-2 and once again advancing. It was only when facing the St. Louis Blues did the Sharks season finally end. They took that series to Game 6, but ultimately fell to the Blues, the eventual Stanley Cup winners.