It might not feel like it for Sharks fans, but in a way, nobody lost in LA Tuesday night. The perennial underachievers underachieved, or maybe they didn’t. Losing in what is to any hockey purist the Stanley Cup quarter finals isn’t exactly “going deep” in the playoffs, but San Jose has to be glad that they at least took the Kings deep in their series. And coming from the point of view of someone who has seen his share of LA frustration in years past, I can say that it’s memorable to go as far as San Jose did this year. Ask Kings fans from 2001.
So nobody has to get fired, as happened in Vancouver when they both lost in, again to cite the past, the “elimination round,” and did so early. The Sharks may not avoid retooling, however. Common hockey lore has it that the team has gone as far as it’s going to by riding the horses it’s riding.
However, in this case, common hockey wisdom is wrong, and Game Seven against the Kings was the proof. On the downside, the Sharks never had the lead in the game, their lone goal coming at about five and half minutes into period three and making the game close, but that’s all. On the upside, it really was a game where anything might have happened, and where but for a few good saves and a matter of inches in a couple of plays, the San Jose team might very well have been watching their TVs Wednesday night in search of an opponent rather than spending the day cleaning out their lockers and preparing for summer exit interviews.
Coach Sutter has, now famously, said that the NHL is a 3-2 league. After the game, as most fans likely saw, he got into the math of this series in his comments. The gist of it was that, with the score of the series being 14-10 for his team, he tried to work out the average score, coming as close as he needed to in what was, in the end, a 2-1.42857 outcome on average. His point is well taken, and it repeats what he said a week or two ago, namely that the teams who make it this far are all very good and that to expect anything more than a tiny gap between them is not to understand the nature of the playoffs.
So what was the difference? Tuesday night, as mentioned, inches. Bracken Kearns passed to the center to Adam Burish with a minute to go in period one and the score tied at zeros. It went under his stick. Going into the period break on the road up 1-0 might very well have changed the mood and momentum of the game.
The second opened with Pavelski feeding Couture in front of the LA net. He took the puck across the slot and fired a backhand. Quick did the splits and made a glove save. And then directly after that, the Kings got their first goal on a power play.
That, too, was a matter of inches, and luck. The puck rebounded off the backboards, though not as a set play, and Williams jammed it in past Niemi’s leg. The puck barely made it across the line and was swept back out by a San Jose stick. Didn’t matter, as the Sharks were in the hole. They could have tied it when Marleau came to the front of the net for a stuff attempt, but that puck was kept out by Quick’s leg. Shortly thereafter, it became 2-0. So that swing from potential tie to two-marker deficit happened within less than a minute.
The second goal came midway though the second period, Williams again, on a play that looked exactly like so many in this series. The puck came across the slot and he one-timed it just past Niemi’s leg. Both Niemi and Quick have made saves on that kind of shot repeatedly, and Niemi might well have done so on this chance.
Looking at the eventual 2-1 score, you might surmise that both goalies were excellent. Quick is now as on top of his game as he has ever been, staying way high out of his net and challenging shooters. His explosive power to throw his body side-to-side or out towards a puck is his trade secret. He deployed his skills for the first time early in period two, when Couture got the aforementioned Pavelski feed going across the slot and fired a backhand. Quick came out and did the splits, getting it with the glove/leg pad about ten inches off the ice. Had it been higher, he was in position for a pure glove save.
Early in P3, it was more Quick magic, again with the glove. Burns fed Gomez, who came across the crease with a shot and was denied.
Both teams had a hard time scoring, but not for the reason the Blues couldn’t score on the Kings in series one. That was universally cited as a lack of finishing, a problem St. Louis never found a remedy for. With Kings-Sharks, it was a matter of team defense, tight checking, and a sell-out mentality to block shots, as Mike Greene did, diving to deflect on off his shinpad in period one, for instance.
The shots were 14-13 LA early in period three and the score still 2-0 for the Kings. They would end 26-18 for San Jose, partly because the Kings played too far back in their own end in period three. They got their goal at about five minutes, on a hard forecheck by Marleau which created a turnover. The puck eventually went to the point to be slapped in high by Boyle. Quick didn’t see it well.
They could have tied it with five to go when Pavelski swept a puck from behind the centerline of his body and on goal. Quick had followed the play over to his left and got out his glove. The save was made half with the pocket, half with the cuff. Had it been elevated more than it was by three inches, it would have gone into the open side. You can decide whether that’s lack of finish or a good save, or a bit of luck. Truth was, right near the end of the game, luck played in when Couture, who had had a dangerous shot from 20 feet, saw his stick break on an ensuing play. The Sharks had their goalie out, but the stick snapping negated that advantage and perhaps cost their last chance to tie it up.
Inches, or .57143 of a goal. Either one made the difference and send Los Angeles along to round three, properly called the “semi-finals.”
Media reports were consulted in compiling this report.