By Allan Muir
It might have been the most impressive period yet of these 2013 playoffs. Led by their captain, Joe Thornton, the San Jose Sharks pinned the Los Angeles Kings in their own zone virtually from the opening face-off, outshooting the champs 15-3 and dominating in every facet of the game. If not for the heroics of Kings' goalie Jonathan Quick, this one might have been a rout.
But at the end of 20 minutes, the Sharks had mustered just a one-goal lead on Brent Burns' second tally of the postseason. And that set up a white-knuckle ride for the fans at HP Pavilion who watched as a furious rally by the Kings fell just short, allowing San Jose to escape with a 2-1 win. The series is headed back to L.A. tied up at two games each.
If the storyline sounds familiar, it's because we've seen this one before. For the third game in a row, the Sharks dominated the first period, swapped chances in the second, and then held on for dear life as the Kings fought back with everything they had in the third. The formula has worked twice now for the underdogs, but it's going to take more than a 20-minute effort to eliminate the champs.
Some thoughts and observations from tonight's contest:
• So many positives to talk about after this game, but the story -- as it has been too often during this postseason -- was another rough performance by the officials. Forget about the general malaise of their inconsistency. This game, and maybe the series, turned when Brad Meier's quick whistle negated what should have been a good goal for the Kings just three minutes after Logan Couture had given the Sharks a 2-0 lead early in the second period. Tyler Toffoli's shot from the top of the circle was slowed by Antti Niemi, but not stopped. It shimmied through his pads and was batted toward the goal line by Dustin Penner when Meier blew the play dead. The veteran official seemed to have position to see what was happening, but he whistled it prematurely. Brutal.
King coach Darryl Sutter was pragmatic after the game. "I'm sure it's in the rule book, when the whistle goes, right?" he said. "What are they gonna come and tell us? They're gonna come say they lost sight of the puck and they blew the whistle."
That's a reason. It's not an excuse. No telling what that goal would have done for Kings. They have every right to feel jobbed after that one.
• So which player is the real Joe Thornton? The beast who came out in the first period playing what might have been the most dominant 20 minutes of his career? Or the mild-mannered nebbish who shrank in the third period as the Kings mounted their furious assault?
Thornton's first period was the realization of what every scout imagined when they saw him crushing the competition as a 17-year-old with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He was relentless, using his size and speed to win battles along the boards, strip the puck from hapless defenders, and make passes like the Great One. He won six of seven draws, helping the Sharks to land eight shots -- to none for the Kings -- while he was on the ice. It was thrilling to watch.
But he couldn't maintain that level, and by the third period he was the one chasing the play, turning over pucks and standing still as lesser players danced around him. When the Sharks needed someone, anyone, to make a play that would stop the bleeding and maybe inspire the rest of the squad, the captain couldn't answer the call.
Look, Thornton's been good in these playoffs. But now that this series is down to a best of three, he has to summon the beast for more than one period a night.
• If Brent Burns played anywhere but San Jose, he'd be a star. A big, hairy star. He nearly matched Thornton's excellence in the first period, using his size and speed to wreak havoc down low and ultimately score the opening goal (off a Thornton assist, natch). He was dynamite on the power play and threw a couple of thunderous hits, including one open-ice bomb in the third that left Brad Richardson stunned and gasping for breath. Burns' butt-first style is unusual, but highly effective. Imagine how many kids would be trying to work it into their games if only he played on the East Coast.
• What can you say about Logan Couture? Gets hurt in Game 3, comes back and scores the winning goal. In Game 4, he was knocked for a loop after an unintended collision with Dustin Brown at center ice. He limped to the bench, stunned. Minutes later, he's back on the ice, deflecting Dan Boyle's point blast past Quick for the game winner. The kid has a knack.
• Which team has the momentum coming out of Game 4? The Sharks, who won to even up the series? Or the Kings, who almost buried San Jose with that third period in which they outshot their hosts, 14-2? Give me Los Angeles. If this game revealed anything, it's that the champs can take a punch -- heck, a lot of punches -- and not lose their focus. They ran out of time for their comeback in this one, but they proved to themselves that if they stick to their game plan, if they get pucks deep, work the forecheck, and hammer San Jose's defense, they'll control their fate. It wouldn't be surprising to see them come out in Game 5 and blow the doors off the Sharks.
• Quick seemed to lose his focus in Game 3, rattled by the constant presence of Sharks in his crease. Tonight? No problem. He was back in Conn Smythe territory, challenging the shooters and keeping the game close until the rest of the Kings showed up. Nice to see him taking care of his own kitchen by popping Tommy Wingels in the face early on. There was a lot less traffic after that...
• The Sharks have done just fine without Raffi Torres, but the Kings are really feeling the loss of Jarret Stoll. Without their top face-off man, L.A. lost 14 of the first 17 draws, most of them in the defensive zone where Stoll thrives. The Kings closed the gap as the game progressed, but it's easy to see how quickly things can slip away when this team is forced to chase the puck.
• Good to see veteran defenseman Matt Greene return to the Los Angeles lineup after missing most of the season as a result of back surgery. He played a little more than 14 minutes, and while his foot speed wasn't quite there and his passes required a little flexibility on the receiving end, he was a solid physical presence, landing four hits and blocking two shots. His experience and veteran presence should help stabilize a D corps that's been in flux all year without him.
• The Kings won 10 of 11 road games last spring. This year, they've won just one, and have lost 10 of their last 11 away from Staples Center. They can take this round by holding serve, but they're likely to start on the road if they move on. That could be a problem.
• Sharks GM Doug Wilson said that the sloppy ice conditions that marred Game 3 "had been addressed." Couldn't tell from the way this one played out. It might not have been low tide in some spots like the other night, but the slushiness of the surface was evident by the way the puck stalled suddenly or players whiffed on clean chances. It's warm all around the league at this time of year, and conditions can be a little challenging everywhere. But the quality of these past two games in San Jose was diminished significantly by ice that simply wasn't good enough. Two teams playing at this level deserve something better. If the local ice crew has done all it can, it might be time for the league to step in before Game 6.