By Allan Muir
Coaches juggle lines all the time looking to spark a flagging offense...but it almost never works out this well.
Justin Williams and Marian Gaborik scored two goals apiece and Dustin Brown chipped in with a goal and an assist to lead the Los Angeles Kings to season-extending 6-3 win over the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night. Williams and Brown were the biggest pieces shuffled as part of a roster shakeup engineered by Darryl Sutter before the game.
Brown, moved to the top line alongside Gaborik and Anze Kopitar, played his best game of the series. He brought a physicality that helped slow Joe Thornton's line (a game-high 10 hits) and set up a camp site in front of San Jose's net that made life miserable for Antti Niemi.
"For me it's just getting to the net," Brown said. "If I can blow my way to the net it opens up ice for those guys. I think Gaborik's goal in the beginning of the third is a result of it. I gave that guy a lot of space so he's going to put it in the net. That's my job to create space for him."
Williams, who always seems to come up big when the stakes are highest, clicked immediately with Jarret Stoll on the third line.
"We're certainly happy we got the win, but we feel we have a long way to go obviously," he said. "We're going take another step in San Jose and it is going to be a tough one."
He's right about that. Despite the win, this wasn't exactly a return to dominance for the Kings, who allowed 39 shots on net and struggled at times to control the middle of the ice. Nor was it a classic performance from Jonathan Quick, although he did what every tendy sets out to do--allow one goal less than the other guy.
It's clear the Kings, who now trail the series three games to one, will have to be better -- much better -- if they hope to survive Game 5 and bring the series back home to the Staples Center. But at least they head into their next must-win contest knowing the pieces are all finally in the right place.
Here are some observations and thoughts from Game 5:
• Does Quick have a 2012-style masterpiece in him? He'll need one, or something close to it, to keep this series alive. The Sharks are throwing everything at the net and averaging nearly 38 shots through the first four games as a result. He was up to the challenge tonight, but was caught scrambling outside his crease more than once, struggled with his rebounds and was spared several times by errant shooting (imagine if Logan Couture's partial breakaway attempt doesn't go wide left on the shift immediately after Joe Pavelski made it 5-3).
The Sharks don't want the Kings to get any ideas after this one, and they'll be looking to put the boot to their throat early. If Quick is anything less than brilliant on Saturday, the Kings return home only to clear out their lockers.
• One more note on Quick's life in the shooting gallery: The Kings allowed the second-fewest shots per game, on average, this season at 26.2. That the Sharks are getting almost half again as many highlights how effective their offense has been at finding lanes to the net and how their speed continues to baffle L.A.'s defense. That, along with San Jose's 57.3 percent Corsi rating in tonight's losing effort, reinforces how vulnerable the Kings are heading into Game 5.
• This was exactly the sort of performance Dean Lombardi imagined when he boldly acquired Gaborik at the deadline. The veteran sniper got the Kings on the board 4:08 into the game, crashing the net to roof the rebound of Brown's snapper. Then he quelled any thought the Sharks might have held of a third period comeback with a wrister so lethal it felt like it played out in bullet time. Full marks to Kopitar for the work he did along the boards to make the play happen, but the patience Gaborik displayed before releasing the shot was Lemieux-like.
There aren't many players with his skill set in this league. Win or lose this series, a game like this makes the case that the pending UFA should be re-signed, and quickly.
• Tough game for San Jose keeper Antti Niemi, who battled the puck much of the night. He coughed up some dangerous rebounds--a couple of which were deposited behind him--and was beaten five-hole by a very stoppable Williams wrister early in the second. Alex Stalock spelled him after Gaborik's second, but don't make too much of that. Niemi will be back between the pipes Saturday night.
• The Patrick Marleau-Logan Couture-Matt Nieto line was a force every time it was on the ice tonight, accounting for 15 of San Jose's 39 shots and consistently controlling the middle of the ice. Their Fenwick numbers reflected that dominance: 63 percent, 66.7 percent and 56 percent, respectively.