After the first three games of the 2014 Pacific Division semifinal series, the Los Angeles Kings were questioned. Now it is the San Jose Sharks that face questions when they take the ice for an improbable sixth game Monday, April 28.
Could San Jose be only the fourth team in NHL history to choke a 3-0 Stanley Cup playoff series lead? Winning in Los Angeles has been difficult for some time, so the likelihood of facing a decisive seventh game after three straight losses looms.
The half of the roster that includes most key players faced that circumstance in 2011 against the Detroit Red Wings and persevered. However, that series took seven games and sapped the team of the fight it needed in the Western Conference finals against a deep and talented Vancouver Canucks team—a lesson the Sharks say they learned that was referenced before losing Saturday's game.
If San Jose faces the full seven games in this series, the Stanley Cup becomes very unlikely. After having the toughest travel schedule in the 2013-14 NHL season, facing seven games against a physical Pacific Division rival is not going to help them be healthy enough to beat two more elite Western Conference teams.
For now, the Sharks must simply focus on advancing from this series. They went from outscoring the Kings 17-8 in the first three games to being outscored 9-3 in the next two. Monday is a chance to end any narrative about choking this Pacific Division semifinal series and will buy the team time to recover before the second round.
Win the game and Saturday's poor home effort can be a blip on San Jose's 2014 Stanley Cup run. Lose it and face two more days of questions like Monday's outside of the venue (neither team has more than two wins on the road in this rivalry since Los Angeles won the 2012 title) ranging from who will be available according to CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz to how will the team get the advantage back in the series...
The first thing any team coming off a losing streak—and in the Stanley Cup playoffs that only allow three losses in any series, two is a streak—is countering the scientific principle of inertia: Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion.
The momentum is on the side of the Los Angeles Kings. Their force must be countered by the San Jose Sharks (a team headed in the other direction) to close this series off. The longer a team is winning, the harder this force becomes.
Worse, Jonathan Quick has returned to form. When he is hot, he can be almost unbeatable. Saturday was his fourth career Stanley Cup playoff shutout against the Sharks.
The San Jose Sharks lost that momentum because of the improved forecheck of the Los Angeles Kings. In the first two games and too much of the third, it was late and actually led to more odd-man rush counterattacks. Now it is forcing giveaways and taken a nasty tone that led to a Marc-Edouard Vlasic injury.
If the Sharks cannot find a way to break the forecheck, they will not be able to win on the road.
The series Breaking Bad is back with a new cast. These two teams have played with incredible edge that has led to many penalties, from roughing, slashing and cross-checking minors to fighting and game misconducts to the tune of 200 total minutes through five games.
The hit on Marc-Edouard Vlasic (or perhaps just the elbow to the head that no fine has even been announced on yet) is only going to intensify the bad blood. While both teams have good penalty kills and only the Sharks came in with a decent power play, many of these have been matching penalties, often without even forcing the slower Kings to play four-on-four.
More than that, this is not San Jose's game. This is a skilled team that must stick to a skilled game and not get drawn into playing the Los Angeles game.
Hold the Pickles
Marc-Edouard Vlasic is predictably nicknamed "Pickles" by his fellow San Jose Sharks. (Hey, it's better than just throwing a "y" on the end of the name like many in the NHL, where creativity is even vilified by dinosaurs like Don Cherry...only his wardrobe can show any flamboyance, apparently.) The aforementioned hit he took from Jarret Stoll has left his availability in question.
He did not skate with the team in the last practice. He is San Jose's best defenseman, and potential replacement Matt Irwin represents a sizable drop-off on the defensive end.
If the Sharks must hold Pickles out for Monday's game, it will be extremely hard to get a win.
The questions start with whether the San Jose Sharks can beat the hot opposing goalie and end with just who will be in net for them. They would like to find the "Nemo" (as goalie Antti Niemi is known) that was as hot as anyone from the last week of January to the end of October of 2013.
That same Nemo started carrying the 2010-11 Sharks at the same time of the year, but broke under the workload in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs. He has been good at times in 2014 but has not been reliable. At most, two goals can be blamed on him in this Pacific Division semifinal series. Despite his poor numbers, he has been brilliant at times.
Still, backup Alex Stalock has been the better goalie during the 2013-14 NHL season and has not allowed a goal in 26 shots and over 57 minutes of career Stanley Cup playoff experience. He has earned a chance to start, and after Nemo has been pulled in consecutive games seems as good a time as any.
If Nemo plays, he needs to find his best game to get his team this win over Jonathan Quick, who will almost certainly face more shots.