When the Los Angeles Kings won the fourth game of their first-round series against the San Jose Sharks, it didn’t really change much. The Kings were playing at home and the series was still 3-1 in favor of the Sharks, giving San Jose three chances to close it out.
On Saturday, the Kings went to San Jose and dominated, peppering the Sharks’ net with 41 shots and winning by a 3-0 score. For good measure, Los Angeles chased Antti Niemi from the nets for the second consecutive game, and an awkward first-period hit from Jarret Stoll sent defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic to the locker room with injury.
The Sharks are losers of two straight games, down their top rearguard and in the throes of a goaltending controversy. The Kings have two consecutive wins, and goaltender Jonathan Quick was exceptional after a rough start to this series against the Sharks. Is it time for fans of L.A. to get excited?
No, not really.
Let’s start with the simple math. If the Sharks and Kings were perfectly evenly matched, Los Angeles would have a one-in-four chance of winning the series at this point, a 50-50 shot of winning Game 6 and a 50-50 shot of winning Game 7. We’d have to weight it a little for home and road games, but as a rough model, that’s how it would work if we were talking about flipping coins rather than a series between two teams.
But this is hockey, not coin-flipping. What about the impact of momentum?
Thanks to the website WhoWins, we can actually go back and look at how teams have performed. Take, for example, teams that were down 3-1 in a series but managed to win the fifth game—113 clubs have done it in a best-of-seven NHL series. If we were flipping coins to determine the results of games, we’d expect 28 of those trailing teams to end up winning the series.
In reality, 25 have, which shouldn’t be surprising given that the teams with a 3-2 lead in a series are generally better than the clubs on the trailing end of it.
Unflappable Kings coach Darryl Sutter was a man of few words following the Kings’ win and certainly didn’t seem to be succumbing to the excitement of his team’s consecutive wins. Jon Rosen of LA Kings Insider was able to summarize the entire postgame press conference in three lines, and Sutter’s response to the question of what his team had changed to win two games after they lost three was particularly understated.
“Stave off elimination” was all the Kings coach was willing to say about what his team had done differently.
That isn’t to say there aren’t encouraging signs in the series for Los Angeles.
Quick had his best game of the postseason to date on Saturday. He struggled mightily in the first three contests but has now put consecutive strong games together. It would be a mistake to read too much into the recent strength (as it would have been to read too much into his struggles early) because over the course of a short span, goalie performance can vary greatly, something Quick’s last eight regular-season games amply demonstrate:
Even so, the Kings aren’t going to win this series unless Quick can string some exceptional games together. He played very well on Saturday, and his save on Tommy Wingels in the third period was phenomenal.
Los Angeles also excelled off the rush in Game 5. Generally seen as a team that needs to rely on simple plays and the cycle, the Kings fired 10 shots on Niemi in the first period alone (San Jose managed only two) off rush plays and scored both of their goals in that manner:
No other playoff team scored fewer goals than L.A.’s 198 (the Kings ranked 26th in the NHL during the regular season in that department), so putting away nine goals in the last two contests is both encouraging and remarkable, and generating scoring on the fly is a welcome change.
It still comes back to the fact that the Kings need to win two games, and the Sharks just one. It’s infinitely more complicated than flipping coins, but these two teams are as closely matched as the head and tail of the same coin; prior to the start of the series, TSN’s Scott Cullen actually used that analogy in his preview:
We finally come to the elite matchup of the first round, with two bona fide Cup contenders squaring off, and look at how close the forecasted numbers have the series. It’s a coin flip, close enough that whichever goaltender plays well should be enough to tip the balance. ... Ultimately, this is such a close forecast that one bounce, one deflection, one call, could make the difference.
If Vlasic can’t return, that could shift the balance considerably. Momentum, too, for what it’s worth, is certainly behind Los Angeles, and being down 3-2 in a series is infinitely preferable to being down 3-0. But it’s still going to be awfully hard to win those last two games against a very good team from San Jose.