The San Jose Sharks have been in the playoffs since losing their last game in Phoenix one week ago.
First, they had to beat the Dallas Stars in a home-and-home (at least earn more points) to pull even in the standings. If they did not, it would slash their chance of winning the Pacific Division title and hurt their chance to make the playoffs at all.
They took both games in regulation. The Stars were all but eliminated, and fell once and for all Thursday night, putting the Sharks in the playoffs.
First round, done.
Now they had another playoff preview in a head-to-head mini-series with the Los Angeles Kings. They had almost no chance of taking the series away unless they won both games. San Jose would start without top-four defender Douglas Murray and L.A. without top-four forward Jeff Carter.
In the end, the Sharks simply outlasted the Kings. They gave full effort beyond the 65 minutes, leaned on their experience to stay in it and were clutch enough to get both points.
With the second-round half over, they are still alive.
The Sharks were being dominated—getting out-shot by more than 5:1 margins throughout most of the first period. Yet the score was tied as they began a five-minute major power play right before intermission.
The game was chippy, and not one the officials should be proud of. They missed multiple penalties on the Sharks and even more on the Kings. Every call that was made—including a major but no match penalty because the hit did not involve the head—was justifiable.
Naturally, calls leaned toward the home team with the better record that has been playing better hockey for longer down the stretch. Torrey Mitchell could miss Saturday's game because physical liberties taken by the Kings, but it was really more of an uncalled interference than a dirty play.
Besides, by far the worst blunder was a no-call: Ryane Clowe got away with imposing his stick illegally in play from the bench in the third period (via Yahoo Sports).
(Note: Things have a way of balancing out. Had their own clock not malfunctioned earlier in the season, the outcome of one Kings game would have been different, too. The Sharks can consider the game payback for Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals.)
Joe Thornton had an early bout with Drew Doughty. When stars drop the gloves, you know the game means a lot to both teams. Thornton won handily, but collected the extra cross-checking penalty.
The Sharks public relations department (i.e. the entire broadcast) made the point that Doughty's retaliatory gloved punch was overlooked. I think the referees should call the instigator over the retaliator (what, a guy cannot make up a word?).
Clowe also got an extra penalty before his bout with Matt Greene 2:30 later. The Sharks penalty kill did the job, but the aggressive play seemed to be bad for the Sharks as it led to three power play goals in the Kings first four chances.
The Sharks trailed 3-1 late in the second and had come up empty on both a major and minor penalty. The game's style of play fostered four more penalties on each team to the end of the game, but it was the Sharks it got back in business: San Jose's power play out-scored L.A.'s 3-2 over the final 21 minutes to take the game into overtime.
Goals were scored by Thornton and Clowe on either side of the second intermission. Joe's was a redirect on the power play and Ryane's was a breakaway stemming from his blocked shot high in the defensive zone.
The Kings answered on the PP a couple minutes later, but Patrick Marleau got off the schneid a minute after that with a PP goal. Thornton got the assist to complete the Gordie Howe hat trick.
Martin Havlat added another in the last eight minutes, and Clowe got the assist to match his captain. It was the first time in franchise history Sharks teammates have had Howe Tricks in the same game.
The Kings still had more power play goals for the game (4-3) despite less time with the man advantage. They capitalized on a five-on-three after a bad penalty by Patrick Marleau, tying the game in the final four minutes.
Once it went into overtime, the Sharks had the advantage: L.A. is not much better than San Jose in the five-minute four-on-four, and much worse in the shootout. They withstood a Sharks power play in overtime but could not score on Antti Niemi in the skills competition.
Joe Pavelski got the Sharks goal.
L.A. out-hit San Jose 36-28 despite besting them in both faceoffs and shots by a 36-31 margin. The Kings possessions increased all the more with the Sharks having four fewer takeaways and only two fewer giveaways. San Jose blocked six more shots.
It was just the eighth time in 94 games that the Kings have not won a game in which they have led going into the third period. Both teams had clinched a playoff spot earlier in the day because of Dallas and Colorado losses, and now are tied a point ahead of Phoenix.
The Coyotes have one game in hand, and can secure the division by winning both. Tiebreaks favour the Kings most and Sharks least, but it could go either way because of the potential for shootout wins. It is quite possible the winner in the very last game played in the entire league may win the Pacific division while the loser may drop to eighth in the standings.
The stakes, the controversy and the rivalry intensified in last year's first-round playoff matchup. The Kings have to be wondering if the Sharks just have their number—taking two of the last three in which the Kings have allowed five-plus goals, including the overtime thriller in that playoff.
With that as a backdrop, Saturday's game could even top Thursday's for drama.