As the San Jose Sharks skated into this Game 7 finale against the host Los Angeles Kings, we knew the match would be gritty and grimy. In this battle for hockey supremacy in California, the winner moves on to the Western Conference finals. Throughout the period, open ice was a rare find, as the teams successfully cluttered up all zones of the ice, subsequently making clear scoring chances hard to come by, and odd-man rushes non-existent. Hits could be found coming with frequency, particularly from the Kings.
Both teams exchanged abbreviated power-plays near the end of the period, but just as it was on even-strength, the only shots that found their ways past the bulk of bodies were low-percentage chances taken from the outside of the shooting lanes. Goaltenders Jonathan Quick and Antti Niemi, both recent Stanley Cup Winners, turned aside all shots taken, as the period closed tied at no score. Don’t believe me that there was little in the way of open ice? The period saw a total of only 8 shots, 5 by the Sharks, and 3 by the Kings.
This is shaping up to be one of those games that ends up being decided by a puck that ends up inadvertently redirected by a random body part, such as a butt, ankle or elbow.
The Sharks came out strong as the second period opened. Joe Thornton won the opening faceoff, continuing a trend (the Sharks won 77% of the 1st period draws). From there, the team swarmed in the first shift, culminating in a chance by Logan Couture, who found himself open 6 feet in front of the net. Couture fired a backhand that was promptly stymied by Quick.
3 minutes into the period, Brett Burns found himself victim of his own brute strength, as he knocked down Robyn Regehr at the side of the net, as they battled for position. Burns was whistled for interference. Then, the curtains to the Justin Williams show opened up.
With the Kings moving the puck around well on their power play, the puck found itself pinned in the corner of the net by Niemi. With a few whacks at the puck by Williams, the puck squirmed loose and jumped over the pads of Niemi and into the net, propelling Los Angeles to a 1-0 lead. Coming into the game, Williams has been an established game 7 player, with 3 goals and 4 assists in 3 previous games. Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov picked up assists.
Following the goal, the Kings appeared revitalized, the Sharks, razzled. Williams was not done yet. Less than 3 minutes later, the Kings caught Niemi moving side-to-side, and Williams rifled a blistering wrister into the Sharks net, for a 2-0 lead. Voynov picked up his second assist of the game, and Anze Kopitar also notched an assist.
With the game taking on a more open approach, shot totals improved to 12 in the game for San Jose, and 14 for the Kings. Los Angeles also finds themselves dominating the physical play, outhitting the Sharks 30-22. If San Jose wants to come back in this game, they will need to continue their ownership of the faceoffs, and start cheating some of their defensemen into the LA zone, trying to create havoc and confusion in front of Quick, while relying on Niemi to pick up the pieces of any ensuing odd-man rushes.
The Sharks needed to come out in this period as if they were shot out of a cannon, and they did not. Instead, Adam Burish found his stick under the helmet and to the throat of Quick, earning himself an interference penalty. With nowhere to go but down, Quick dropped to the ice, and was himself slapped with an embellishment penalty. Upon seeing the replays, the LA crowd was none too pleased (and rightfully so) - at which point the refs ordered that no more controversial calls be shown on the big screen.
Excuse me refs, but get the calls right, and you have nothing to worry about. The fans at the game paid good money, they are entitled to their in-game presentation.
During the ensuing 4-on-4, Jeff Carter raced like a rocket on a rapid breakaway, which was stopped by Niemi.
Shortly after returning to full strength, the Sharks Dan Boyle got San Jose on the board with 15 minutes left. Cheating into the zone, Boyle’s slapshot, on an assist from Joe Pavelski, cut the score to 2-1. From there, the teams engaged in endless board battles – the Kings trying to hold onto their slim lead; the Sharks hoping for their tying chance.
With 5 minutes to go, San Jose got that chance. A rebound chance fell right to the stick of Joe Pavelski, 3 feet from the net and with Quick laying on the ice. Pavelski was unable to roof the puck, allowing Quick to make a game-saving highlight-reel glove stop. I wonder if the crowd was allowed to see it?
With Niemi pulled, and 1:20 left, Quick made yet another game-saver. Couture, from the top of the point, fired a shot at the corner of the net towards the crowd in front of Quick, and somehow Quick saw it and made another spectacular glove save. After a few more saves in the final minute, the Kings held on for the win, 2-1.
Ultimately, the difference in this hard-fought series boiled down to depth of scoring. The Kings were able to receive contributions from all 4 of their forward lines, while the Sharks received no goals from their 3rd of 4th lines.
Tomorrow night’s game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings will determine who the Kings will face in the Western Conference finals. Meanwhile, in the East, the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins still wait for their series to begin.
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