There is no getting around it now. The San Jose Sharks belong among the all-time Stanley Cup playoff chokers in history by becoming just the fourth team to ever blow a 3-0 series lead Wednesday, April 30.
Worse, it was to the Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Kings. After a long history of underwhelming postseasons, this ranks right up there with losing to the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs after winning the President's Trophy as the one that will hurt the longest.
Ray Ratto of CSN Bay Area quoted several of the players discussing that pain after the game in a piece that asks whether the team can recover from this choke—the only thing you can call losing four consecutive times with a chance to end the series. That will be examined here in the coming days, but first this game deserves its own look.
The Sharks were the better team in a scoreless first period and got on board on the first shift after intermission. Tomas Hertl fed Matt Irwin on the point for a shot through traffic that Jonathan Quick never saw. James Sheppard got the secondary assist on what was to be half of the total number of goals scored in the last three games of the Pacific Division semifinal series.
San Jose could complain all it wanted about the two really bad calls that led to a tying goal by Drew Doughty, after Jeff Carter kicked a Marian Gaborik rebound back. The problem is that like Monday's loss, this was not a one-goal game. Even without the empty-net scores, Los Angeles had two legitimate goals.
With 1:21 left before intermission, Justin Williams got the puck to Anze Kopitar to set up a great backhand that beat Antti Niemi (secondary assist to Kyle Clifford). In the first five minutes of the third, Tanner Pearson got the puck from Jake Muzzin and attacked low, flinging a pass across for Tyler Toffoli to deflect home. The man beaten on the play was Matt Nieto—a blemish on a solid virgin Stanley Cup playoff performance.
The choke was complete, because two scores were more than the Sharks were going to get against Quick. Two goals in 180 minutes is not going to win any games, whether or not the penalties were called that let the Kings tie it up.
San Jose also had twice as many power plays. It is hard to blame officiating when there was only one other penalty kill the rest of the game. It is also true that referees are human and tend to call the way of the team with the momentum, and constantly surrendering it by getting one score (in the final nine minutes of a then three-goal game) in its last 23 chances on the man-advantage will not get the benefit of the doubt.
Dustin Brown and Pearson added empty-net goals in the final 2:07 that got Kopitar and Trevor Lewis assists. Ultimately, the Sharks lost too many possession battles (34-43 faceoffs, 11-9 giveaways and 7-8 takeaways are all negative margins). They did make up for them with hits (37-29) and loose puck retrieval to attempt 15 more shots and get 10 more on net, but could not get enough second-chance shots to beat Quick.
The Kings played the game that allowed them to be the last team to win the Stanley Cup after a full season. Defenders supported Quick with seven more blocked shots. That gave them the higher percentage of attempts blocked (32.9 to 26.7 percent) and fewer shots allowed per block (1.74 to 1.88) than the third-best team during the 2013-14 NHL season in both categories.
The difference in the first three games was San Jose's depth players, but it was Los Angeles stars that eventually earned a Pacific Division semifinals win...
Jonathan Quick had a rocky start to the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, but he came up big with his team facing elimination. The only goal he allowed on 40 shots (.975 save percentage) was one he did not see, and he did not even have a giveaway while lending support to his blue line moving the puck.
Another player continuing hot play, Anze Kopitar had eight points in the first six games of the Pacific Division semifinals and added a goal and assist Wednesday. He had three shots in eight attempts overall, plus one hit, block and takeaway to go with 18 wins in 27 faceoffs over the most minutes (21:10) for any forward on the Los Angeles Kings.
Drew Doughty led all players with 25:56 ice time. He scored the first goal for the Los Angeles Kings to keep his point-per-game pace intact so far in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.
However, he had only one other shot on goal plus one more attempt blocked, adding just one hit and two blocks to go with a giveaway. He was even on the ice when the San Jose Sharks scored their only goal.
He also was on the ice a lot of times when the Sharks had no scoring chances. He was a monster all series and an impact player in the closing game.