Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Kings-Sharks Game 7 could truly go either way
By Pierre LeBrun
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Game 7 has a lore not contained by borders.
Slovenia’s Anze Kopitar made that clear on the eve of his first career NHL seventh game when asked whether he ever pretended to play in one as a kid just as Canadian kids do.
"I got blood under my skin just like a Canadian kid," said the Kings' star center. "I don’t think it’s any different over in Europe. Everybody wants to be in these types of games. You want to raise the level of play, and eventually you want to be the hero in these types of games."
It just sounds different. It feels different. It plays different.
It’s what every kid dreams of.
"It’s seems like everything you did sportswise is always a Game 7 when you’re in the neighborhood and stuff," Sharks center and Anchorage native Scott Gomez told reporters in San Jose on Monday before hopping a plane bound for L.A. "So it’s a special time, and as you get older, you realize that you have to take advantage of these, but it’s great for hockey, great for the fans, great for this area. The goal was to get back to L.A., and we’re excited that we’re in a position where we can move on."
Game 7. Just mention those two words and let your imagination do the rest.
"I don't think it's a hard thing to get up for a Game 7," said Kings captain Dustin Brown, a native of Ithaca, N.Y. "Whenever you're playing road hockey, you're always playing in a Game 7, right? I'm looking forward to the opportunity. I know a lot of other guys are looking forward to the opportunity to be in a game like [Tuesday] night. It's about getting yourself in the right mental mind frame."
California’s 2013 NHL title game is an intriguing juxtaposition of experience and variables.
On the one hand, the Sharks’ roster has more than twice the amount of Game 7 experience under its belt than the Kings'; heck, Gomez alone, with nine career Game 7s played, accounts for more than half of the 16 total Game 7s in the Kings' dressing room.
On the flip side, the Kings were crowned last spring as Stanley Cup champions, perhaps more relevant a recent history when it comes to pressure hockey.
"This is one opportunity for the guys in here who haven't been a part of Game 7," said Brown. "I know I haven't. But I think we have enough playoff experience in big games. It's one game, and we're at home, where we play well. That's why we fought and battled for home ice in the regular season."
It was exactly a month ago Monday, on April 27, that the Kings edged the Sharks 3-2 in their regular-season finale, a contest that seemed largely irrelevant at the time because the Blues had sewn up the No. 4 seed before both California clubs had hit the ice that night.
Ah, had they only known then that the one-goal victory would mean home ice for the Kings in a seventh game in the second round.
L.A. has won 13 straight at Staples Center, and there’s no question the Kings are thrilled the big one is at home Tuesday night, especially given the team’s 1-5 road record this spring.
Still, the Kings have made things interesting for themselves by not closing it out Sunday in San Jose. This is a beat-up team that will play its 13th game in two rounds Tuesday night. The Kings could have used those extra days off.
Now they have a one-game showdown with the season on the line. It’s a position the Kings were never in last spring, the team amazingly going up 3-0 in each round and going past five games only once, at the end, when Game 6 was needed to finish off the Devils in the Stanley Cup finals.
It’s been a different script this spring.
"The mood’s good," Kopitar said Monday. "We certainly realize that we let one get away from us last night. That’s why we won the last game of the season, to come back here. The way this series has been going, I guess the odds are on our side, but we realize it’s going to be a hard game. And anything can happen in Game 7."
Frankly, anything can happen in this Game 7 because there’s just so little to choose from between these two teams. I can’t remember the last time I covered a series where I felt both teams were so, so close in performance. There’s nary a hair separating these two clubs, which is why neither outcome Tuesday night would surprise anyone.
"There’s not much difference in the teams," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said Monday. "We finished one point apart, our goals against is similar, our goals for is similar, our power-play goals for the year is similar, our penalty kill is similar, so there’s a lot of similarities."
Meaning all you can control on Tuesday night if you’re the Kings or Sharks is your own individual performance.
Gomez remembers what veteran Devils GM Lou Lamoriello once said about Game 7s when the center played in New Jersey.
"If you can look at yourself in the mirror after and know that you gave it your all, that’s what it’s about," Gomez said. "Sports are crazy. The outcome’s not always going to be what you want. I always remember him saying that. But being on both sides and everyone has a different memory of Game 7. But like I said, these are the fun ones. We’re all excited. There’s nothing better in sports than a Game 7."
And let’s not kid ourselves here: The pressure’s on the home team Tuesday night. It's the Cup champ, after all.
The Sharks are playing with house money, or at least they give you that impression. Nobody’s going to say they had a disappointing season if they lose Tuesday night. After they dealt away three potential unrestricted free agents before the trade deadline, I don’t think many people would have figured the Sharks for being one win from the Western Conference finals in late May.
After years of feeling the burden of expectations, the Sharks didn’t have any this spring.
And the players are feeding off that.
"The unique thing and the great thing about our team right now is they’re playing for each other," Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said Monday. "They’re motivated by each other, they’re having fun together, they’re seizing the moment. We don’t have to come in as coaches and motivate, and give them the 'One for the Gipper' thing. It’s not that way. It’s a good thing for our team. Maybe in the past we’ve had that, but not now."
When pushed into a corner over the past two months, the Kings have delivered. When the Blues went up 2-0 in the opening round, the Kings found another level. When the Sharks won two games to tie this series, the Kings dug deep and found another level.
No question you expect the defending champs to find yet another level Tuesday night.
What’s nagging at them, though, is why they haven’t been able to do it consistently from game to game like they did so impressively a year ago.
"We’re a confident group, we know we can get it done; we’ve done it a bunch of times already," Kopitar said. "Now it’s just a matter of going out and really performing to our standards. Because let’s be honest, we haven’t done that nearly consistently enough. No better time to do it than [Tuesday]."