LOS ANGELES- A bit of nervous laughter turned into boisterous cackle for the San Jose Sharks as they eliminated the Los Angeles Kings with a 4-3 victory in overtime Monday night at Staples Center.
The win was San Jose’s third in overtime as well as their third road victory in this sinewy series where neither team could sustain momentum for more than a moment.
“Whether it was period to period or game to game, coming off a win or coming off a loss, you could expect them to come out hard,” Sharks winger Dany Heatley said. “We needed to really play a solid game to win the games that we did. Tonight, we had the lead three times and they kept coming back on us.”
Heatley was one of four different San Jose goal-scorers, but none contributed a bigger tally than Joe Thornton’s game-winner 2:22 into sudden-death overtime. Thornton, who has absorbed criticism for his postseason performances as both a Shark and a Boston Bruin, poked fun at the news media’s derision in the past.
“I don’t really read what you write,” he said with a laugh. “I read Playboy and things like that, I don’t read your kind of columns.”
Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan praised his captain Thornton’s leadership and complete game not only in the series but throughout the Sharks’ fourth consecutive division-winning campaign.
“He’s known for offense but he was a helluva penalty killer tonight,” McLellan said. “He blocked a lot of shots in the series, he won a lot of key faceoffs, he broke up plays on the back-check and he’s doing a lot of things away from the puck.”
San Jose sustained poor special-teams play for much of the game. Their power play sputtered and their penalty kill allowed two critical goals to one of the more feeble power-play units in the NHL this regular season.
However, their penalty killers came through in a major way at the end of regulation and start of overtime. They erased a five-minute L.A. advantage following a Jamie McGinn charging major for his effort to become a human guillotine with a high hit on Brad Richardson.
Thornton said that those critical moments offered a chance at redemption for the penalty kill. To a man, the Sharks believed that success provided the final swing of momentum they needed to end the series.
“That’s sometimes the way hockey works, you do a job like that and you get rewarded at the end,” Heatley said.
On the Los Angeles side, poor puck security plagued the Kings once again as it has throughout their more forgettable moments in the series. Beyond his firm approval of goaltender Jonathan Quick and some veteran players who blocked shots, Kings Head Coach Terry Murray offered an assessment of his team’s shortcomings.
“Overall, far too many turnovers when we had the opportunity to get it deep. We’re already over the red line, we’re already in the neutral zone and we tried to make that one extra play,” He said. “It makes it a long night when you’re playing with that kind of attitude.”
The Kings carried the very early play despite a shotless game through four minutes. A controversial offside call robbed Ryan Smyth of a grand opportunity to score. Jarret Stoll’s line also created a scramble around the San Jose net.
The Sharks buzzed thereafter, racking up a swift 11-1 edge in shots on goal. Quick withstood a barrage that included point-blank chances from Thornton, Devin Setoguchi, Heatley and a pair from Joe Pavelski in rapid succession.
Los Angeles’s only opportunity came and went on a partial breakaway for Justin Williams that was shut down by the long stick of Douglas Murray.
The Kings took a timeout to regroup from the shooting gallery and discuss ways to limit giveaways.
All told, the Sharks peppered Quick with 16 shots to just five for the Kings as the game headed to its first intermission scoreless.
Both teams generally agreed that the opening frame was the Sharks’ best period of the series, an effort negated by the continued excellence of Quick between the pipes. Quick made 51 of 52 saves in game 5, a win for Los Angeles in San Jose.
“He showed he’s a top goaltender in the league. If he saw the puck, you’re very rarely if ever going to beat him,” Heatley said.
Willie Mitchell was sent off early in the second stanza but his teammates stood strong with one of their top penalty killers in the box.
At even strength, Dan Boyle and Kyle Wellwood came within inches of scoring on one trip. On the next possession, Wellwood ran a give-and-go play with Thornton that ended when he roofed the biscuit over Quick’s glove to finally put San Jose on the board.
The goal was San Jose’s second in 71 shots on net over the past 83 minutes of the series. It came after some confusion in goal as Quick lost his stick, recovered defenseman Rob Scuderi’s stick and fumbled around for stints during the play as a result.
“Our focus was to get so much traffic, as much as we could on (Quick), to bang in rebounds, get in his face and kind of wear him down throughout the series,” Heatley said.
A delay of game call banished Matt Greene to the sin bin. The Kings penalty kill and its fiercest weapon Quick weathered another storm. The shot disparity increased to 25-7, with Greene’s awkward escape from the box netting only a scramble with lots of contact in front of the goal.
The Kings gained a huge opportunity as Thornton caught Richardson with a high stick that drew blood.
Early in the four-minute advantage, back-to-back blasts by Jack Johnson and Drew Doughty tested the pads of Niemi, who rejected both shots.
Los Angeles earned the equalizer when Justin Williams sent a rebound zooming past a compromised Niemi. Johnson gained the blue line with ease and set up Trevor Lewis for a redirect off Niemi’s left pad that was swooped on by Williams.
Moments later, a clean faceoff win resulted in a rocket from Doughty and a rebound that created a sterling opportunity for Smyth. Unable to control the rolling puck, he sent the biscuit right into the glove of Niemi for a freeze.
San Jose quickly quelled the home team’s momentum. A board battle drew all five Kings skaters to the left-wing wall. When Pavelski won the puck for the Sharks, he found a pinching Jason Demers in space on the right side. Demers zipped the puck past Quick sharply to regain the San Jose lead.
Demers has provided offense in big spots throughout the series for San Jose.
“That is his game, he’s very creative,” McLellan said. “He’s a riskier D-Man so he has to be paired with the right guy. But he has great vision and he’s prepared to turn that risk into some offense.”
On the first possession of the final frame, Los Angeles knotted the game at two. Once again, Smyth tracked down a rebound on Niemi’s glove side, only this time his forehand bid nicked the nylon. The goal was the fastest third-period playoff goal in Kings history, scored 18 seconds into the period.
Smyth now skated with Dustin Brown and Stoll, whose hard shot created the rebound. Los Angeles shuffled every line but the Richardson line mid-game after starting the combos that debuted in game 5.
Richardson’s line was on the ice as San Jose took the lead back. Heatley snuck in behind a pileup at the blue line, where he pounced on the puck and snapped it past Quick for an unassisted goal. Richardson’s line endured a tough night defensively despite becoming a go-to offensive line for the Kings in this series.
Los Angeles earned a strong chance to draw even when Williams drew a penalty in front of the net. Stoll created another rebound, this time with a point shot through a screen by Dustin Penner. Lewis mopped up the mess in front to score his first goal of the playoffs.
Power-play situations offered limited hope for the Kings for most of the year. They consistently ranked in the bottom third of the league in efficiency and sometimes even had their offensive flow disrupted by the ostensibly advantageous situations.
“You’ve got to welcome frustration at times,” coach Murray said. “There’s a lot of young players playing on the power play and they’re gonna be better at the end of the day because of their experience they went through this year.”
The Kings’ surprisingly potent power play would soon earn its biggest opportunity of the season. McGinn took a dangerous run at Richardson. The resulting charging major and game misconduct ended McGinn’s night and breathed life into the Kings’ hopes of extending the series.
Williams nearly became the hero when a one-time pass found his stick on his off wing. He fanned partially on the shot, sending it wobbling wide.
Brown beat his man wide, crisscrossing to the net where he, Smyth and Doughty had close-range chances in rapid succession. Niemi held his ground and the Sharks forced overtime soon after.
“The guys firmly believe in Niemi,” McLellan said. “They have played against him and he’s stoned them, he’s gone on to win the Stanley Cup. Now we’re playing with him They’ve seen his effect that he had in the last three months and they want him in the pipes.”
Los Angeles did not manage a shot on goal in 1:37 of power-play time in the bonus frame.
“That’s a critical moment in the game right there. We had a chance to put it away,” Murray said. “I thought we did with about 17 seconds left in the game, there was celebration going on, people were throwing their arms in the air. I thought it was over. But again, that’s a missed opportunity.”
Shortly after the penalty expired, Setoguchi and Patrick Marleau failed to connect on a one-time effort but a bouncing puck found the stick of Thornton, who popped the winner into a gaping left side of the net.
“You’ve seen in this whole series, just weird things happened in front of the net. It just spit out nicely and I just gobbled it up,” Thornton said.
San Jose awaits either the eight-seeded Blackhawks, who are trying to complete a historic rally from an 0-3 series deficit against top-seeded Vancouver, or the Detroit Red Wings, for whom McLellan was an assistant coach before he headed to San Jose.
McLellan dismissed any thoughts about looking ahead to an opponent yet to be determined.
“If you ever find a coach who will tell you who their preference is, make sure you introduce him to me,” McLellan said.
Reflecting on the series, McLellan said he and his team learned a lot about one another.
“Number one, we don’t do anything easy,” he said. “But there is some resiliency in the locker room. The leadership showed through when it had to. The belief in the goaltenders that we have was very important. So, we learned a lot about each other. It’s just a small part of what we hope is a long journey.”
San Jose offered highly respectful words for their opponent after they completed what became a 12-game season series against their divisional foes from Los Angeles.
“They’re not a seven seed,” Thornton said. “They’ve been pretty stingy defensively all year and we knew it was going to be a tight defensive battle. They have one tremendous goalie that gives them a chance to win each and every day.”
For Los Angeles, the season ends in nearly the identical fashion it ended in last year, on home ice with their elimination coming after six first-round games. Nevertheless, this year’s loss came without leading scorer and top defensive forward Anze Kopitar. It also arrived with with no shortage of strong responses to trying situations.
“If you start to feel sorry for yourself when it comes to injuries, you might never break through as a pro team,” Murray said. “There’s no sympathy there, nothing is needed from anybody to say, ‘Well, it’s too bad,’ too hell with that.”
Murray lauded the solidarity of his team and the emotionally-charged culture that has been developing within the franchise.
“Every player in that room cares about this organization, cares about this team, cares about their teammates and that’s what I really love about this group of guys.”