|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2011||[Print without images]|
LOS ANGELES -- The San Jose Sharks arrived in Los Angeles on Monday night a somewhat weary bunch after a Game 2 stinker which gave life to the underdog Kings.
They were downright puzzled after the Kings went up 4-0 in Game 3 on Tuesday night.
Now freeze that moment for a second. Go back to when Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi got pulled 44 seconds into the second period of Game 3. Remember how you felt when you processed the fact that the favored Sharks had given up eight goals in a row dating back to Game 2. It was ugly. You wondered if Sharks coach Todd McLellan's head might explode right there behind the bench.
Well, fast-forward five-plus periods of hockey, and the Sharks have since outscored the Kings 12-4 and are feeling mighty good about themselves after a pair of victories at the Staples Center, including Thursday night's 6-3 decision that gave them a 3-1 series lead.
"I think we just found our legs," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said of the turnaround. "We're going to the net with a purpose. Yeah, we're going now."
San Jose can wrap up this Western Conference quarterfinal series with a Game 5 victory Saturday night at HP Pavillion. That seemed like an unlikely possibility just around the time the Sharks were down 4-0 in Game 3.
|After scoring eight straight goals, the Kings have since been outscored 12-4 and face a win or go home situation in Game 5.|
But the superior talent has taken over in this series.
Thornton got his first goal of the playoffs Thursday night and looked his best so far. Ryane Clowe had two more goals to give him four in the series. Joe Pavelski scored his third, and all three top lines got on the board, a three-wave attack that the Kings have run out of ways to stop.
"We feel that we've got three lines that can score and match up with anybody, and right now they were," said Thornton.
"That depth is starting to show up the last couple of games," added Clowe, who has been a monster. "We're a tough team to stop when three lines are forechecking."
And it's not just the more talented team taking over. It's the more talented team understanding once again what it takes to win in the playoffs: paying the price. The cut over Thornton's left eye, evident in the dressing room after the game, underlined that renewed playoff lesson.
"We're a little more confident," said McLellan. "We're playing the right way. We're doing some of the little things that you have to do at this time of year to be successful. I still think there's room for improvement in our game, but it's a grind-it-out series. It's about being hard along the boards, hard around the net, and if we continue to understand that we'll give ourselves a chance to move ahead."
Kings goalie Jonathan Quick left San Jose last Saturday night having stopped 76 of 79 shots in the opening two games, and one wondered if he could perhaps steal this series. He has since given up 12 goals on 63 shots.
"There was no consideration to pulling Quick," said Kings coach Terry Murray. "Sometimes a goalie has to play through it. It's his game and he's got to work his way through it. You look at the goals, and they weren't the goalie's fault. Changing the goalie sends the wrong message to the team; everyone is in this together."
We're not for a second blaming all of this on Quick. The Kings have broken down defensively, and it has been a team effort. Having said that, Quick is very aggressive and comes out of his crease a lot to challenge the shooter. Plus, the Kings were blocking a ton of shots in the opening two games, and the Sharks have adjusted their shot strategy/selection by passing off for the backdoor play or faking shots to tee up a teammate.
"He's a tremendous goaltender," said McLellan. "He's real good at getting out and finding shots, and he doesn't give up many second opportunities. We're no different than any of the 16 teams in the playoffs -- we need to get people in and around [the net] and find that loose change."
The Kings did respond after going down 3-0 Thursday, scoring twice in the second period to make it interesting entering the third. But then the Sharks pushed again to blow it open.
"I really liked our competition to make it a 3-2 game," said Murray. "And then whatever happened in the third with giveaways, turnovers, lost faceoffs -- that's sometimes a hard thing to explain."
Now the Sharks head home and have a chance to cool off for the second round, like Detroit is doing now. It's important to have a short series if you intend to have a long playoff run, but these Sharks have proven themselves unpredictable in the past.
"We're going home where we've been taught a lesson by the Kings already once," said McLellan. "We'll be looking to put a better effort in front of our fans."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.