VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) - The San Jose Sharks have been making a bad habit of blowing leads in the playoffs.
While the Vancouver Canucks celebrated a come-from-behind 3-2 win to open their first appearance in the Western Conference finals in 17 seasons, the Sharks were lamenting another game that got away in the final period.
It was the third time in four games San Jose had failed to hold a third-period lead. The one time they did was during an emotional, draining Game 7 victory over Detroit on Thursday to advance to a second straight conference final.
Just as they did while blowing late leads in Games 5 and 6 - and a 3-0 series lead - against the Red Wings, the Sharks didn't have an answer when the Canucks' push late in the second period carried over into the third.
``You never want to protect it. When you're on your heels, bad things happen,' said defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic. ``We wanted to come out strong, keep playing the way we did, but they were the best team. I don't think it was fatigue. I just think they came out harder than we did.'
Vancouver's best players led the way, with captain Henrik Sedin helping set up Kevin Bieksa's tying goal 7:02 into the third period, and scoring the winner on a power play 1:19 later. It was redemption for Henrik and twin brother Daniel, who won the last two NHL scoring titles but were criticized after combining for two goals, seven points and a minus-10 rating in the conference semifinals.
``We rarely read the newspapers or watch hockey coverage on TV,' Henrik said. ``We know when we are not playing well. We don't have to hear that from everyone else. There have been games we haven't been very happy with our performance.'
Sunday's was not one of them.
San Jose took a 2-1 lead into the third period thanks to Patrick Marleau's goal on its only power play, and a gift goal for Joe Thornton off the stick of Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo. But after failing to finish several great chances late in the second, Vancouver finally converted in the third.
Alex Burrows skated onto Henrik Sedin's chip pass and behind Dan Boyle on a left-wing rush before feeding a pass across that Bieksa wristed past a sliding Antti Niemi.
Dany Heatley took an elbowing penalty 32 seconds later, and the Canucks' power play, which looked terrible its first three chances after leading the NHL in the regular season, also woke up. A point pass from former Sharks defenseman Christian Ehrhoff got Niemi moving right, and Sedin, whose only other goal in these playoffs was into an empty net, skated onto it the other way, waiting for Niemi to slide past before tucking a backhand shot into the empty net.
``The twins get going like that, they are almost unstoppable,' Bieksa said.
Game 2 is Wednesday in Vancouver.
``I thought our team looked tired. I thought our team looked sluggish,' Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. ``There's nights when we lose our legs, but our minds are still pretty sharp, and I didn't think that was the case tonight. It started between the ears and it worked all the way through the body. We were like dogs chasing cars on the freeway. We just weren't catching anybody.'
Maxim Lapierre scored his first goal of the playoffs, and Luongo made 27 saves.
Niemi stopped 35 shots for the Sharks, including a handful of highlight-reel stops late in the second period, robbing Ryan Kesler during a wild scramble and Hansen in alone.
``We wanted to get into the locker room and recover a little bit,' McLellan said. ``But we didn't have it in the third.'
Notes: San Jose D Jason Demers was a surprise late scratch because of an unidentified injury, and was replaced by Kent Huskins ... Vancouver LW Mikael Samuelsson, who plays the point on the first power-play unit, hasn't skated since getting hurt in Game 5 of the conference semifinals.
The Associated Press News Service
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