LAS VEGAS - For those who said the Smythe division semifinals series between the Las Vegas Sharks and San Diego Toros would be one-sided in the Toros' favor, one discounted the fact that last night was the Sharks' first playoff home game in their history.
In Las Vegas. On a Saturday night.
If that sounds like a major, heavyweight prize fight, the atmosphere at Silver State Arena certainly resembled that. And the Sharks responded with a performance that would make some of the great fighters of all-time stand up and applaud.
Ales Hemsky scored two goals, including the go-ahead tally with 3:56 left, as the Sharks edged the Toros 2-1 to win their first home playoff game in franchise history while taking an unexpected 2-1 series lead.
"The atmosphere here tonight was incredible," said Hemsky. "The fans were with us all the way, and that definitely helped us. It's still a long series, but this was an incredible night."
Major professional sports teams have long avoided Las Vegas due to the spector of the casinos and potential ramifications of gambling. This left a gaping hole in the local sports scene, and the city has taken no time in embracing the Sharks and wrapping themselves up in this playoff race. All day long fans walked up and down the Strip in Sharks gear, and by the time the puck dropped later that night, they were ready.
And perhaps caught up in all the pageantry themselves, the Sharks responded with a goal off the opening faceoff as Andrew Gordon scored just 12 seconds in off a pass from Brad Boyes to give the Sharks an early lead while sending the home crowd into a frenzy.
But the Presidents Trophy-winning Toros weren't going to go down that easily, and they responded with a tally of their own 1:55 into the first as Theo Ruth fed a pass to Danny Briere for his first of the playoffs to tie the game at 1.
From there, the game would continues its' back-and-forth pace through the remainder of the period. Adam Henrich put Las Vegas back ahead at 3:29 on his first of the playoffs, but that was matched just 32 seconds later as Ruth connected with Brandon Gormley for his first to tie the game at 2.
San Diego took their first lead of the game following a Kevin Marshall penalty at 7:17 for holding the stick as Tom Wandell scored his second on the power play at 8:15 to make it 3-2 Toros. But the Sharks would strike back at 13:59 on Ales Hemsky's second to tie the game at 3 and cap off a wild period that saw 34 total shots on goal.
Things would settle down dramatically in the second as the two teams combined for just 16 total shots and no goals. And most of the third period would stay that way as well, despite the Toros putting up 14 shots on Sharks goalie Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, of which he stopped all of them.
And then with time ticking down in regulation and overtime potentially looming, Travis Zajac dished to Henrich, who found Hemsky for his second of the game and third of the series with just 3:56 left in regulation to put the Sharks up by a goal while sending the home crowd into jubilation.
The Toros would be unable to get a tying marker past Drouin-Deslauriers and the Sharks celebrated the unlikely series lead with their fans. Game 4 is Monday night.
YO! GEE, BERRA - Reto Berra stopped 40 of 42 Greensboro Swordsmen shots as Brooklyn Red Bulls H.C. took a 2-1 series lead with a 4-2 home win. Dan Boyle and Vincent Lecavalier each had two points in the win.
BEAT ME IN ST. LOUIS - Patrik Elias scored two goals and an assist as the Edmonton Oilers held off a rally by the St. Louis Smugglers by picking up a 6-5 road win and a 3-0 series lead. The Oilers can get the sweep Monday night.
DOUBLE TROUBLE - Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny each scored two goals for the Quebec Red Devils as they won their first game of the series - 5-3 at home over the Toronto Fire. Toronto now leads their series 2-1.
2014 XHL CUP PLAYOFFS
Sunday, July 27 - Simming at aprox. 11:53 PM EST - All times Eastern - Jersey color in parentheses
Philadelphia (orange) at New Orleans (black) - 12:30 PM - NBC, TSN (New Orleans leads series 3-0)
Ottawa (white) at Montreal (red) - 7 PM - NBCSN, CBC, Radio-Canada (Montreal leads series 2-1)
Winnipeg (white) at Oakland (alternate) - 3 PM - NBC, TSN (Winnipeg leads series 2-1)
Los Angeles (white) at Vancouver (blue) - 10 PM - NBCSN, CBC, FS Prime Ticket (Vancouver leads series 2-1)