There are a lot of reasons the San Jose Sharks won't win their decisive Game 7 against the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night at SAP Center.
Some of those reasons are rooted in an eerily similar second-round series the Sharks played in 2011. Just as they did with the Kings this year, the Sharks squandered a 3-0 series lead against the Detroit Red Wings, although they held it together to win Game 7 at home and advance to the conference finals.
The problem for the Sharks is for all the similarities that series holds with their current one against the Kings, it's the little differences that are going to make them the fourth team in NHL history to lose a playoff series after winning its first three games.
In 2011, the Sharks refused to become unraveled when they had every opportunity to do just that.
The Red Wings won Game 4 in Detroit on a goal with 1:27 remaining in the third period by Darren Helm after the Sharks erased a 3-0 deficit, an expected result from a team filled with veterans who would not go gently into that good night.
In Game 5, the Sharks frittered away a 3-1 lead in the third period and lost 4-3 in regulation. In Game 6 in Detroit, again, the Sharks blew a third-period advantage and lost 3-1 to set up a pressure-packed Game 7 at home.
As someone who covered that series from puck drop until the final horn of the Sharks' 3-2 win in Game 7, I can tell you there was no sense of panic from anyone involved with the Sharks. There seemed to be no doubt from anyone—not coach Todd McLellan, not newly minted captain Joe Thornton, not goaltender Antti Niemi—that the series was going to end with the Sharks advancing.
There were enough reasons for the Sharks to crumble. Letting the Red Wings off the hook in Games 5 and 6 would've rattled some teams, but not that Sharks team. After he was outstanding in Games 1-3, Niemi allowed eight goals on 62 shots (.871) in Games 4 and 5. McLellan stuck with Niemi for Games 6 and 7, and his Cup-winning goaltender was brilliant in those final two games.
It took a late goal in Game 7 from Patrick Marleau to vanquish the Red Wings, but it felt more like an inevitability than a team dodging a bullet.
From afar, it looks like the Sharks have done a complete 180 from what that team accomplished in the face of disaster three years ago.
McLellan sent a dangerous message entering Game 6 by replacing Niemi, who, admittedly, has not shown the form he had in 2011, with the inexperienced Alex Stalock. To call that a panic move would be a great understatement, asking a goaltender whose only playoff experience was mop-up duty in Games 4 and 5 to go toe-to-toe with Jonathan Quick.
McLellan decided against swapping Niemi for a far more experienced, although perhaps less talented, goaltender in Antero Niittymaki in 2011, and Niemi rewarded that faith.
Stalock was fine and matched Quick for 50 minutes before a goal that should not have been allowed gave the Kings a 2-1 lead in the third period. It's debatable whether the puck was frozen or visible, but Justin Williams pushing Stalock into the net in order to generate the goal should have resulted in it being waived off.
I would disallow Kings 2'nd goal re: 69.6. Once Stalock made initial save even though portion of puck became visible to ref from behind.— Kerry Fraser (@kfraserthecall) April 29, 2014
Overriding factor is J. Williams did not put puck into net legally w/ stick but pushed Stalock backwards with his stick causing momentum &— Kerry Fraser (@kfraserthecall) April 29, 2014
Resulting in the puck to cross goal line. This is no different than crashing the net.— Kerry Fraser (@kfraserthecall) April 29, 2014
It wasn't, and, unlike in 2011, the Sharks completely unraveled in the face of adversity.
The Kings broke down the Sharks for two more goals. The game ended with Logan Couture fighting Mike Richards and Thornton mixing it up with Quick. Raffi Torres and Brent Burns were handed 10-minute misconducts, and McLellan said after the game he felt his team was "cheated" on the game-winning goal.
Perhaps it was because McLellan treated this Game 6 like a Game 7, and rightfully so, and the Sharks responded in a way that revealed their high levels of frustration when they couldn't close the deal. Sometimes teams like to "send a message" at the end of lost games to "set the tone" for the next one, but the Sharks had the look and sound of a team that felt defeated, not one looking to motivate for the next game.
That is what separates 2011 and 2014.
Compare to that Game 6 in Detroit three years ago, when the Sharks and Red Wings mixed it up in the final 10 seconds when the game was all but over. There was never a sense the series might be over.
"Just ask Detroit -- they lost three in a row and their confidence wasn't frayed," Thornton said after that loss three years ago. "We're a confident group, still. You work 82 games to get home ice in these Game 7s. Now we just have to make it work."
After losing Game 6 in Los Angeles on Monday night, Thornton echoed those comments.
"We worked all 82 games to have home ice in this situation," Thornton told reporters. "Obviously we would have liked to win tonight. I thought we played well until that one goal that we thought should have been disallowed. We go home now and it's a huge game."
Again, eerily similar with small differences. Thornton spoke of his team's confidence three years ago; on Monday, he made no mention of confidence but instead pointed a finger at a bad call costing his team a chance to win. The Sharks also had the confidence of having beaten the Red Wings in a playoff series the previous year; last year, the Kings ended the Sharks' season in seven games.
Perhaps it has something to do with only seven players remaining from that 2010-11 team that defeated the Red Wings. Thornton, Marleau, Niemi, Couture, Dan Boyle, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are all that remain from that squad, and the absence of two of those players will likely be the biggest difference Wednesday night.
|Player||Career games||Career SV%||Career PO games||Last 10 games|
McLellan made it sound as though he will stick with Stalock, who will need to best Quick in what will be his second career postseason start in perhaps the most pressure-filled situation imaginable. The Sharks could return to Niemi, who won that Game 7 with Detroit three years ago with 38 saves on 40 shots, but McLellan may have burned that bridge already.
Stalock is a great unknown at this point and could deliver the same way Niemi has in the past. The 26-year-old has a .931 career save percentage but has faced only 593 career shots in the NHL; in four AHL seasons, Stalock had a .909 while facing 4,044 shots. The latter number is probably more indicative of his talent.
The real problem for the Sharks is the likely absence of Vlasic, one of the more unappreciated defensemen in the NHL who was knocked out of Game 5 by a dirty hit from the Kings' Jarret Stoll. Vlasic was a possession monster this season, posting a 58.2 percent Corsi share and 59.3 percent Fenwick share, good for third and second among defensemen, respectively, per ExtraSkater.com. He did all that while also facing some of the stiffest competition in the league, which means he had one of the more impressive seasons in terms of the always valuable advanced statistics.
Imagine if the Boston Bruins had to play an elimination game without Zdeno Chara; it's not quite at that level, but it's not far off, either.
The most crucial player scratched against the Red Wings for Game 7 in 2011? Jamal Mayers? Jamie McGinn? Kent Huskins?
The only defense pairing for the Sharks to post positive possession numbers in Game 6 against the Kings was Boyle and Matt Irwin. Scott Hannan, Brad Stuart, Jason Demers and Justin Braun all posted Corsi percentages in the 40s, per ExtraSkater.com, which is a recipe for disaster against a deep Kings team that can beat you with all four lines.
Vlasic did not practice Tuesday, and his status for Wednesday remains in question.
McLellan offers no update on Vlasic. You can put that in the “had to ask anyway” column #SJSharks— Kevin Kurz (@KKurzCSN) April 29, 2014
Vlasic's health may be the strongest indicator of whether the Sharks have a chance in Game 7. If he's healthy enough to play, the Sharks have hope.
If not, the Sharks won't be able to dodge that nightmarish bullet for the second time in four years.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.