After beating the Los Angeles Kings in the first two games of the first-round, Stanley Cup playoff series in San Jose by a combined score of 13-5, the San Jose Sharks face an intriguing challenge in Game Three tonight as they look to put a stranglehold on the series.
If the Kings win on their home ice, they're right back in the series -- and the Sharks' two blowout wins in San Jose are a distant memory. But if San Jose manages to win tonight on the road, the series is all but over when most experts assumed it would go the distance like last year's second-round matchup.
So what can a hockey fan expect tonight?
Los Angeles is a proud club that just won the Stanley Cup two years ago in one of the dominant runs through the postseason anyone has seen recently: as an eight-seeded team in the West, the Kings rolled to the Cup Finals in just 14 games, dropping one contest in the opening round against the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks before sweeping the Central Division-champion St. Louis Blues and then beating the Pacific Division-champion Phoenix Coyotes in five games.
That the Kings beat the East's No. 6-seeded team (New Jersey Devils) in the final in six games is almost forgotten after they swept through the three Western division champions like those teams didn't exist. Los Angeles won its first ten (!) road playoff games that year, before finally dropping Game Five of the Finals in New Jersey -- enabling them to clinch the Cup in front of their home-ice fans in Game Six.
The core of that team is still on the roster, and that's what the Sharks have to eliminate while they have the chance. A defending champion is very dangerous, as San Jose found out last year when it faced Los Angeles in the second round: the Sharks had a 3-2 lead in Game Two of that series in L.A. with less than two minutes remaining, but they coughed up two goals in 22 seconds to lose.
And when San Jose went on to lose in seven games, that blown lead proved to be the costliest moment of the series. Thus, the Sharks know the Kings will not roll over, even after San Jose sent wave after wave of attacks at 2012 Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick in Games One and Two.
The Kings hadn't given up six goals in a game all year; Quick gave up 12 goals in five periods of play in San Jose. Now, the Sharks -- who are 6-1 all time in playoff series where they go up 2-0 -- have a chance to step on the throat of the Kings and really bury them.
Los Angeles, just 2-10 all time in seven-game playoff series when they fall behind 0-2, will never quit. Cup winners have a tendency to be that stubborn, something most of the Sharks know very little about, in truth.
In fact, just last year, the Kings lost the first two games of their first-round playoff series on the road in St. Louis before storming back to win four straight and advancing to face San Jose in the second round -- so Los Angeles isn't panicking.
Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle won a Cup ten years ago with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and goaltender Antti Niemi backed the Chicago Blackhawks to their Cup in 2010. Defenseman Brad Stuart was with the Detroit Red Wings when they were champions in 2008.
These are the San Jose leaders who need to show the rest of the team the way to Lord Stanley's lair, and they would be best served to demonstrate what they know tonight -- when the Kings will be most difficult to beat.