There is so much more on the line for the San Jose Sharks than advancing to the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs Wednesday, April 30. A loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the Pacific Division semifinals would move them from playoff underachievers to historic chokers.
Only three other teams in NHL history ever lost a series after having a 3-0 series lead. The last one (the Boston Bruins) did recover to win the Stanley Cup the next season, but had not already squandered so many opportunities as San Jose.
On the other hand, the number of opportunities comes because of the consistent quality of play. In fact, a win means the Sharks have reached the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in eight of the last 10 seasons—most in the NHL. They would also have a second series win in three against the Pacific Division rival Kings.
The biggest thing is San Jose would have a chance to shake the underachiever label and become a champion in the same postseason, like the Boston Red Sox did in 2004. The question is whether the players have finally learned they must not get complacent.
It has been taught to the Sharks many times, and the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs seemed to show progress. It turns out their “closing ability” in the first round was more a manifestation of a dying era for their foe than their own doing.
Only three people are constants with this team since 2005, when general manager Doug Wilson united the star he inherited (Patrick Marleau) with the only player taken ahead of him in the 1997 NHL draft (Joe Thornton). All but one year of that time has been spent with one of the two players as San Jose’s captain.
Their leadership has not yielded results. The Sharks have made it to three Western Conference finals, but have just three total wins in that round. They have only once actually been the best team out west (twice as top seed), but have failed to even ably contend for a Stanley Cup finals appearance.
Much of this is due to an apparent lack of urgency when they lead a game or a series. Their worst period in the 2013-14 NHL season was the third. They have lost a pivotal Game 5 six straight times.
San Jose could have closed a series in the first one and survived the next two. Last year was a missed opportunity to host the Western Conference semifinal series-clinching game against Los Angeles and this year it would have meant closing the Pacific Division semifinals.
It all has to come back to the constants. If Wilson is the problem, the next general manager is stuck with his players anyway. The solution lies with the people he has hitched himself to.
Both cornerstone players have been the leaders on a team that continues to come up short. Even though Marleau and Thornton are both under contract for the next three years, each turns 35 before next season and they are running out of chances to escape sinking deeper into the quicksand of playoff failure.
NHL.com correspondent Eric Gilmore talked about San Jose’s confidence going into the game Tuesday, and this is a loose bunch. That same personality that lends to complacency also lends to calm when things are at their worst.
Now that the Sharks have played poorly in six of nine periods since taking the 3-0 lead, being concerned about it will only lead to gripping sticks. Jonathan Quick is hard enough to beat without that burden.
The players defining San Jose’s last nine Stanley Cup playoff runs both have a chance to play a vital role in xystwhat.com’s three keys to victory…
Own prime real estate
Jonathan Quick is going to save everything he can set for. The only way to break the Los Angeles Kings is to get screens and force changes of direction. The latter means getting the puck across the slot to the weak side—tough to do even on the rush against one of the best blue lines in the world—or deflecting shots.
It also means pouncing on rebounds. The space in front of Quick must belong to the San Jose Sharks. So must the space in front of their own net.
The Kings have owned that space for most of the last three games. Rebounds to uncovered shooters and cross-ice feeds on the rush must stop. The Sharks will win if they own both creases, no matter how well Quick plays.
Back end personnel
The San Jose Sharks have not said whether Marc-Edouard Vlasic would be available for the deciding game. Obviously the availability of their best blue-line player makes a big difference in the likelihood their season extends to May. The same goes for whether he is healthy enough to resemble the player he normally is.
If the Sharks are at a disadvantage on their blue line, that is all the more reason to start Alex Stalock. He is an elite puck-mover at goalie and can help break the forecheck the Kings have used effectively the last three games.
If San Jose privately believes as vehemently as they have publicly that the second goal against Stalock should not have counted, then he allowed three goals on 30 shots (or perhaps 29—they might not have given Williams a shot without the goal). That represents an improvement over what Antti Niemi has done in his last two starts.
The Sharks need whoever is in net and whoever is on the blue line to play well together. They will probably need forward support. All hands must be on deck defensively because one mistake goal allowed could be the difference when scores of their own will be at such a premium.
The San Jose Sharks are faster and deeper than the Los Angeles Kings. Players like Patrick Marleau, Matt Nieto, Raffi Torres and Dan Boyle (plus hopefully Marc-Edouard Vlasic) need to get moving north and south as quickly as possible.
Any play that jeopardizes that priority must be abandoned. If Joe Thornton enters the zone ahead of his teammates and pulls up to thread a cross-ice feed to a trailer, that opens up a potential counterattack. The right play would be to take the puck to the goal line to break down the Los Angeles defense.
The outlet pass will be key. If San Jose’s blue line can put them on target to forwards heading up the zone, they turn defenders around.
Then players need to advance it to teammates rather than carry it in so no one stops moving their feet. As long as everyone is skating, the Sharks have the advantage. As soon as they stop, the Kings do.