The San Jose Sharks began the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs in grand fashion Thursday, April 17. Forty minutes into the game, they had a 5-0 lead over the Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Kings and had chased Conn Smythe goalie Jonathan Quick.
From there, things got a little hairy. The Kings reminded everyone they are Stanley Cup champions—the last team to win in a full season—in storming back for three third-period goals to make it a game again.
They were the ones that got the first opportunity, too. Just 18 seconds into the Pacific Division semifinals, Antti Niemi was facing a grade-A chance from Jeff Carter.
When he made the save, it seemed the Sharks and their fans let out a collective sigh of relief. Once the biggest question mark came up big, the team responded with jump.
Just over three minutes into the game, Brent Burns dug a puck out from behind the net and threw it up the slot, where Joe Pavelski whipped it on goal. Joe Thornton got the goal when he deflected the shot in the tough areas in front of the crease.
The game started to take on the nasty tone of two bitter Pacific Division rivals doing battle early. There were two major scrums, the first of which was caused by Mike Brown going hard to the net and knocking one of Quick's defenders back into the goalie. That led to two matching minors for both teams and worked the crowd into a frenzy.
ESPN hockey expert Pierre LeBrun, who called the performance a statement in his recap, said before the post-game press conference that word was the decision to start Brown came after coach Darryl Sutter put Jordan Nolan on the ice for Los Angeles. The two were among the four players to get minors in the scrum, and there were a game's worth (55) of hits in the first period.
San Jose kept that pressure on all period despite losing the puck four more times via faceoff and three more via turnovers, finishing it with a 27-11 edge in shot attempts. The last two were goals.
In the last minute, Tommy Wingels pulled up in the offensive zone and sent the puck across the ice. Quick stopped James Sheppard's shot, but the rebound caromed right to Tomas Hertl for the easy put-back goal against the team about whom he declared "it's personal" to CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz Sunday.
The Kings got their second prime scoring chance with 16 seconds to go, and it looked like the Sharks would go into intermission up two goals when Sheppard gathered the puck with room to clear. Instead, he laced a pass to start a two-on-one, give-and-go rush for Matt Nieto and Patrick Marleau—one of the new faces assisting the established face of the franchise on the score.
Goals with just over three seconds remaining before intermission can be disheartening, but San Jose was clearly ready for Los Angeles to fight back after they retook the ice. A minor 25-24 edge in attempts in the second period turned into a 14-10 edge in shots on goal and 2-0 in goals thanks in part to an 11-4 edge in blocked shots.
Almost 13 minutes into the second period, the Sharks got some sustained pressure. Hertl had a shot and hit in the attack zone to keep things going and Vlasic's shot drew iron. Instead of being frustrated about it being the second time the team came so close on a goal in the period, Brown attempted to get hold of the puck and it squirted to Raffi Torres in the slot for the easy goal.
Torres now has six points in six games during 2014. Jokingly asked if he was going to lobby for first-line time as a point-per-game guy, he smiled but offered a serious answer—one of a few times he made the point: "I know my role."
Less than three minutes later, Logan Couture was able to advance the puck in the zone. He got it to Hertl, who found Vlasic for the wrist-shot goal to go up 5-0.
Martin Jones got his first Stanley Cup playoff action in the third period. He may have been the only replacement, but it looked like both coaches had changed out their entire benches because it was a completely different game.
Just over two minutes in, Jake Muzzin scored the first goal for the Kings after Anze Kopitar took advantage of a Jason Demers giveaway. Less than five minutes later, Slava Voynov made Niemi pay for another giveaway with an unassisted goal.
At that point, it was still 5-2. When Carter got the puck from Robyn Regehr and had his shot deflected home by Trevor Lewis, things became tense. San Jose was out-shot 16-5 in the third, but Burns potted an empty-net goal to end any Los Angeles hopes in the final minute.
Several Sharks admitted after the game that they had let up, expressing varying levels of disappointment that they opened the door for the 2012 Stanley Cup champions. Coach Todd McLellan indicated the best thing to do was move on—both from the poor third period and from the great two that came before it.
Even with 20 bad minutes and some bounces players admitted were lucky in the first 40, they clearly the better team Thursday night. Even though they lost two more faceoffs and three more turnovers for the game, they attempted seven more shots and still blocked three more. They were out-hit by the Kings 69-52 mostly because of getting to almost every loose puck in the first two periods.
San Jose knows its Pacific Division rival will not have so many defensive breakdowns, will see net-minding improvement and will not face that many bad bounces again. However, knowing it is good enough to dominate Los Angeles goes much deeper than the constant fan chants of, "Beat L.A." that may still be echoing in the SAP Center Friday.
If the Sharks are capable of playing this well, they are capable of winning the Stanley Cup. If they can take care of business on Easter Sunday, they will be halfway through the Pacific Division semifinals.
San Jose had several players that got strong consideration for Examiner.com stars of the game, but only three can be chosen...
Marc-Edouard Vlasic was extraordinary Thursday, scoring a goal and adding an assist on five shots and seven attempts. He also added one hit and played under 19 minutes thanks to the lead lengthening Todd McLellan's bench.
Tomas Hertl broke through in his first Stanley Cup playoff action like he had on the 2013-14 NHL season. He had a goal and an assist on five shots and six attempts, but also added two hits and a takeaway.
With a game-winning goal on his only shot (he also missed once), seven hits, one block and one takeaway, Raffi Torres gets the edge over Brent Burns (empty-net goal, assist on five shots and nine attempts with six hits) for the final star. (Dan Rusanowsky gave it to James Sheppard, who had two assists but was on the ice for two goals against—the second happening directly because he was out of position.)