LOS ANGELES- Both the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings will seek to bury several moments from their turbulent game 3 in tonight’s game 4 match-up at Staples Center.
That contest began with the Sharks surrendering four straight goals and ended with the Kings losing 6-5 in overtime.
“We were very excited about (the comeback) but we also know that the mulligan that we used won’t be available to us again,” Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan said.
Kings Head Coach Terry Murray referred to his team’s implosion in game 3 as “embarrassing ourselves” and “terrible.”
Those statements were not unlike the ones made by McLellan after his Sharks sustained a 4-0 drubbing in game 2, showing that the series can swing without notice.
As a result, neither team has made any drastic changes. Terry Murray will roll the same lineup in game 4 as he did in game 3 essentially. The Sharks will go back with Antti Niemi in net after he was yanked in favor of Antero Niittymaki in game 3.
Niemi has responded well to the rare occasions on which he was pulled during the year. Nittymaki, though a seasoned goaltender at various levels, had played just four periods since Jan. 15 prior to his game 3 appearance.
The Los Angeles veterans Ryan Smyth and Willie Mitchell have been involved in no shortage of upsets and rallies. Smyth went to the Stanley Cup Finals with an eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers team in 2006 and Mitchell was a member of the 2003 Minnesota Wild squad that rallied from a pair of 1-3 series deficits to reach the Western Conference Finals.
Smyth has repeatedly stressed the importance of focusing on every given play over any broader analysis of splits and rallies over the course of a series.
“You go into it as though every game is an opportunity and every game is a challenge,” Smyth said. “Put the pressure on them, so to speak. They’re a second seed, first-placed in our division.”
Mitchell has emphasized the significance of sound special teams, attention to critical details and unyielding focus.
“When you play a smart team game, you’ll beat a team of individuals any day of the week,” Mitchell told the L.A. Kings Insider Rich Hammond.
One major concern for Los Angeles has been a dip in faceoff wins. Both teams ranked in the top ten in draw percentage during the regular season but after the experienced pivots Jarret Stoll and Michal Handzus propelled Los Angeles to an even split in game 1, their success in games 2 and 3 stalled around 40 percent.
With Stoll serving a suspension in game 2, no L.A. center produced a winning percentage in game 2. That included a mediocre 13-of-30 showing from Handzus, who did not get the better of any single San Jose center.
Despite Stoll’s return, the same was true in game 3 with only Richardson hitting the 50-percent mark. Handzus shouldered less of a load overall, but performed very poorly as he won just one of 15 draws.
In game 1, the Kings top-three centermen–Handzus, Stoll and Brad Richardson–won 16 of 23 defensive-zone draws. In Tuesday’s game 3, they were a much less robust 6-for-18 on D-zone draws in a contest where the Kings’ defensive coverage was positively porous in the second period.
Coach Murray discussed several small but significant adjustments that needed to be made in order to improve the Kings’ success in the circle and gain vital leverage in the possession game. He said better awareness from forwards and defensemen would be needed to win scrambled draws. Murray also felt hat greater patience would be needed from his pivots to utilize one of the luxuries that home ice affords.
“When you get in second, you have the advantage. So we need to show that read, make a better decision as a group of center-ice men, to come in later, make sure that they’re set and give yourself the edge,” Murray told Hammond.
That patience will also help the Kings maintain match-ups at the dot, where they had their first options tossed by the official no fewer than half a dozen times in game 1. That included Richardson’s removal for Kyle Clifford, whose loss to Joe Thornton led to a Patrick Marleau goal.
Thornton, whose impact has been limited in terms of scoring (that assist was his only point in the series), has ruled the faceoff circle thus far in the series. His 63.6 percent ranks fourth among in the NHL during these young playoffs.
For San Jose, the biggest question appears to be in net. Though Niemi has been typically terse at the morning skates in this series, there has to be a bit of heat behind the block of ice Niemi, who stood firm for the Chicago Blackhawks last year en route to a Stanley Cup.
Niemi has allowed eight goals in a hair over 80 minutes of action, a troubling trend for San Jose despite McLellan’s expectation that Niemi would be “very good” in his upcoming game 4 start.
Overall, much has been made of each game in what has essentially been an even series. San Jose carried the early going and parts of the stretch run of game 1 along with their utter dominance in the second stanza of game 3. Los Angeles played a solid second half of game 1 and ran roughshod over the Sharks in game 2 as well as the first frame of game 3.
Many in the press box and stands may believe that the Sharks’ historic comeback showed shades of Montreal’s rally against the Boston Bruins in 1971 that helped send the underdog Canadiens onto Stanley Cup glory. Others have drawn comparisons to the Miracle on Manchester in 1982, a rally from a 5-o deficit that pushed the Kings past the favored Edmonton Oilers in their first-round series.
The players, however, are less certain.
“We’ll see, no one knows what the turning point is until the series is over,” the Sharks’ Calder Trophy nominee Logan Couture said.