SAN JOSE — Minutes after his club forced Game 7, Cale Makar’s extraordinary vision was proven to extend far beyond the ice on which he dominates.
“Now it’s a toss-up and the pressure is on them going back to San Jose,” said the 20-year-old Avalanche defenceman armed with clairvoyance that betrays his youth.
Yes, nerves will certainly be felt in an Avalanche dressing room full of wide-eyed youngsters who are just as shocked as the hockey world at their staying power.
However, the club clearly feeling a bigger squeeze than a John Daly hug is the veteran Sharks squad built entirely around finally completing the journey they’ve positioned themselves for over the last decade.
How many more chances will they get?
Perhaps never before has the team been better equipped to win its first Stanley Cup, nor have the seas parted so fortuitously as they have of late.
The top seeds are out, leaving a wildly unpredictable path for the second seed in the west to return to the final it fell short in three years earlier.
It is there the hockey world is already fantasizing about a matchup pitting Joe Thornton against a Boston bunch he was traded by 14 years earlier. A story for another day, if only the Sharks can hold serve in a game Los Tiburones die-hards fear could be yet another opportunity squandered.
You bet the pressure is on the team with five 27-goal scorers, the best defensive trio in hockey and more depth than a Stephen Hawking opus.
Anyone who heard Sharks coach Pete DeBoer snap on reporters two of the last three days when asked routine questions about the status of Joe Pavelski can tell there is tension on the precipice they sit upon.
When asked about Makar’s wise observation, DeBoer certainly didn’t deny who was feeling the most heat.
“Who cares where the pressure is — you win, you advance,” said DeBoer in a conference call before his team flew back to California. “That’s the bottom line.”
Brent Burns, a man of few words but plenty of points these playoffs, shrugged off the assumption like he’s shed defenders.
“I don’t think about that — it’s just another game,” said Burns. “When you’re a kid you never play Game 5. You play Game 7, in overtime. This is fun.”
Not for Sharks GM Doug Wilson, whose masterful job over the years has made the Sharks a perennial powerhouse capable of doing so much more each spring than it has.
The Erik Karlsson rental expires this spring with little hope the two-time Norris winner and his $11-million ask could be shoe-horned into their budget.
Their captain and leading scorer, Pavelski, can walk too.
There’s little chance he’ll leave, but his price tag will force tough decisions that will alter the core of a team that needs to give 30-goal scorer Timo Meier a massive raise as an RFA.
A decision also needs to be made on the future of Thornton, who at age 39 may be playing his last game Wednesday night.
A team with defensive anchors like Karlsson, Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, combined with studs up front like Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl, Meier and leading playoff scorer Logan Couture, is armed with all you need to win a Stanley Cup.
Their biggest question mark coming into the playoffs revolved around the goaltending of Martin Jones, which has been sublime since the team faced elimination in Game 5 against Vegas to pull off three straight must-wins.
The Sharks essentially got a mulligan from the officials (and an historic scoring miracle from the hockey gods) in Game 7 to advance past Vegas, prompting some to see them as this year’s team of destiny.
They now face being upset in Round 2 by a team that needed to go 8-1-2 down the stretch to squeak into the playoffs.
Nothing has come easy, yet they’ve persevered.
A pesky eighth seed with far more heart and talent than anyone gave them credit for now gets one last crack at knocking off the pre-season Cup favourite, and they get to do so with the NHL’s best player these playoffs, Nathan MacKinnon.
Gabriel Landeskog’s winner early in overtime Monday night marked just the latest punch in a series full of counterpunches where no team has capitalized on momentum gained in previous outings.
Every game in this evenly-matched tete-a-tete has truly opened with a clean slate.
There’s little doubt San Jose’s lineup, spirits and leadership will be bolstered Wednesday when Pavelski is almost certain to be given the green light to return to action following his head injury two weeks earlier.
Although it’s clearly a sensitive topic for DeBoer, Pavelski’s return is yet another reason to expect the Sharks to pull this one off.
There are those pesky expectations again.
“Instead of a fear or a nervousness, there’s an excitement level about the opportunity,” said DeBoer about the experience his team has playing Game 7s.
“I know our guys have a comfort level in big games. We’re obviously happy we are at home for a bunch of reasons — not just last change, but the energy of our fans and sleeping in our own beds.”
And the chance for his team to continue chasing the potential everyone in that room knows they have.
“One game at home to get to the Western Conference Final,” said DeBoer. “If you would have told us that at any point in the season, we would have taken it.”
Game time is 6 p.m. Pacific.