Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Cross Checks [Print without images]

Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Kings claim epic California battle -- barely

By Pierre LeBrun



LOS ANGELES -- A titanic Californian fortnight is over, ending the way it began, with a Jonathan Quick gem.

What else is new, right?

A series that was incredibly close had to end, the reigning Stanley Cup champions raising their game one more time as if on cue to win the day.

Justin "Just Call Me Game 7" Williams provided a pair of second-period goals, and the Los Angeles Kings outlasted the San Jose Sharks 2-1 Tuesday night to cap a series that was decided by a hair.

“They’re as good as us,” Kings head coach Darryl Sutter said afterward, adding that the only difference was scoring the extra goal they needed.

“The series could have gone either way,” said a dejected Marc-Edouard Vlasic in a somber Sharks dressing room. “Tonight could have gone either way. We fought back all year, and it sucks to get that close now and fall short.”

Take a bow Californian puck fans, you took center stage in the second round with the best hockey the NHL had to offer.

I honestly cannot remember the last time I covered a series that featured two teams so closely matched.

“They were very close games, and they gave us pretty much everything we could handle,” veteran Kings blue-liner Rob Scuderi said. “I’m just glad we could pull it out.”

But in the end, two eye-popping trends owned the day: The home team went 7-0 in the series. And the team scoring the first goal was also a perfect 7-0.

Which is why the Sharks, to a man, spoke Tuesday morning about how badly they wanted to score first.

They played a real solid opening period, limited the Kings to only three shots on goal.

Then Sharks star Logan Couture was stoned by a beauty of a Quick glove save early in the second period, a golden chance for the Sharks to get that opening goal they so dearly craved.

But the game -- and their season, in many ways -- came unglued 2:46 into the second period when Brent Burns took an interference penalty 200 feet away from their own end, the kind coaches cringe at. On the ensuing power play, Williams poked in a rebound to make it 1-0.

Maybe knowing just how badly they wanted that opening goal themselves, the Sharks were totally unhinged after that, running around their own zone like their hair was on fire, while the Kings smelled blood and, like the champs they are, applied the pressure in waves as they sensed a chance to pile it on.

A TV timeout did nothing to calm the Sharks down.

Anze Kopitar came flying into the zone when play resumed and found Williams with a zinger of a cross-ice pass that the veteran, a two-time Cup winner, one-timed past Antti Niemi for a 2-0 lead at 7:08.

Bedlam at Staples Center, with two goals in 2:57. In reality, it was pretty much game over when you consider Quick had given up three goals just twice in the entire playoffs and only once to San Jose.

Dan Boyle sure made it interesting 5:26 into the third period when his point shot beat Quick, the Sharks then pressing for the equalizer for much of the period.

But there was that Quick guy again, extending his arm and snagging what looked like the sure tying goal from Joe Pavelski with just more than five minutes to go.

“I think the Pavelski one near the end,” Scuderi said when asked to pinpoint the save that stood out to him. “He got over and made that huge save before I could get there. I can’t tell you how that speaks volumes for the confidence in the locker room, knowing that you have a guy that can make that save when you need it.”

Niemi was very good in this series, but Quick -- last season’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner -- was great. That was just enough of an edge for L.A.

“Their goalie, we didn’t want him to be the story,” Boyle said. “[But] I think he was the difference in this series, in my opinion.”

The offensive star on this night, meanwhile, is no stranger to Game 7 heroics. Williams entered the game a perfect 3-0 in his career in Game 7s, tallying seven points (three goals, four assists) in those games.

Make it 4-0 in Game 7s for Mr. Clutch, with nine points. There’s a reason the guy has two Cup rings, right?

“Right place, right time,” smiled Williams. “I enjoy pressure situations. I know everyone in this dressing room does. You want to be out there first minute, final minute. You want the puck.”

The Kings now await the winner of the Detroit Red Wings-Chicago Blackhawks series to continue their title defense.

It has been far from easy, the Kings falling behind 2-0 in the opening round to the St. Louis Blues and seeing the Sharks go toe-to-toe with them in the second round, but the champ is still standing.

What remains to be seen is whether having to play 13 games in two rounds, compared to only nine games halfway through their title run a season ago, will have any impact on their ability to continue their advancement.

“We’re going to need some rest here over the next few days because we need it,” Williams said.

But whatever concern there is in terms of what the Kings have left in the tank, that’s a question for another day. On this night, the Kings remained the kings.

The allure of repeating as champs for the first time since the 1997-98 Red Wings fuels this team.

“I didn’t know this until June 12 last year,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “But you don’t know what you’re really playing for until you win. You don’t know the feeling; you don’t know what it’s like until you win it.

“In previous years, when we got knocked out by Vancouver and San Jose, I didn’t truly understand what I just lost out on. Now, it’s a different perspective after you’ve won. It’s a huge motivating factor for the guys in here.”