By Allan Muir
So, what do you believe in?
Momentum? Then you're probably pulling for the San Jose Sharks in tonight's winner-take-all tilt against the Los Angeles Kings (9 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network, TSN). The Sharks come into the contest after a brutally efficient 2-1 win in Game 6 that saw them limit the Kings to just 16 shots over the final two periods as they locked down the defensive zone. If they can carry that effort into tonight's game, they'll advance.
Or maybe you think it comes down to home ice. That's the refuge of Kings fans who are hoping that their team can hold serve at Staples Center, where it took the previous three games in this series to extend a 13-game home winning streak. And it's not just the Kings: 70 percent of the games during this year's tourney have been claimed by the home team, the most since 1976. In this round, the home sides are an even more convincing 18-3. An L.A. fan will take his chances with numbers like those.
Maybe you like experience. The Sharks have the edge there, with their roster combining for 31 Game 7s played to just 15 for the Kings.
Or maybe the ability to close will make the difference. The Kings have claimed five consecutive playoff series, and while they've stumbled along the way, they've consistently found a way to seal the deal. And there's something to be said for coming into the match as the defending Stanley Cup champs.
Of course, that didn't help Boston last spring when the 2011 Cup winners were dispatched in Game 7, in overtime, no less, by the upstart Washington Capitals. Or the Chicago Blackhawks, who also lost in OT of Game 7 in the first series of their Cup defense in 2011.
All of which is to say that no matter what you think, tonight's battle for the championship of California could go either way. Frankly, there's little to choose between these two clubs that mirror each in character, talent and performance. So when it all comes down to one game, maybe it's best to throw out everything that's come before and consider how this game might actually be won.
Goaltending is always an issue in the playoffs, but both Jonathan Quick and Antti Niemi have been superb. Each has allowed just 11 goals through the first six games, meaning another 2-1 finish like Game 6 is probable. That puts the emphasis not only on the first goal, but finding a way to disrupt the other guy's mojo.
For the Kings, the focus is on getting shots on net, something they've failed to do in sufficient quantity in this series. They've topped 30 just once, and that led to a four-goal outburst in Game 2. For San Jose, their priority has to be getting traffic in front of the volatile Quick. He's going to stop everything he sees, so blocking his sight lines and knocking him out of his comfort zone will be crucial.
So will a strict adherence to discipline. There are going to be smart penalties taken in this game, or at least, necessary penalties. That's fine. The key will be avoiding the lazy infractions, and the emotional after-the-whistle fouls. And if anyone feels pressured to clear the puck out of their zone, use the boards, not the glass.
Then there's execution. The Sharks are coming off a game in which they started slowly, but put it all together in time to smother the Kings.
"The adjustments [our] players made, give them credit for that," San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. "[We] were much sharper, [we] executed better, [we] were hungrier to execute and make plays, and I hope they expect that from each other again."
The conditions will conspire against both sides, so that puts an emphasis on shorter passes and simpler plays, especially in transition. Forwards will need to keep tight gaps with their defensemen in order to give them the best chance to move the puck out of the zone and maintain possession. And finally, it's time for the stars to shine. Anze Kopitar has just two points in this series and has yet to put his stamp on a game. Justin Williams has gone eight games without a goal. Both need to find another gear to help out Drew Doughty, arguably the series MVP, and Jeff Carter. Joe Thornton's had stretches of dominance for San Jose, but he has only one assist in LA. Same for Logan Couture, who sports an ugly minus-5 rating at Staples in this series. Patrick Marleau is the only one of the big three to score a goal there, but he hasn't been good enough, either. The Sharks will live or die on their ability to treat this like another game at the Shark Tank. The Kings will continue their reign if they're allowed to feel right at home.