The San Jose Sharks don’t have to be reminded of the last time they were on the brink of eliminating the Kings in the first round of the playoffs.
They also don’t need to be reminded of their bleak history of playoff success and early round exits and how this year will be more of the same — but the noise will still be omnipresent anyway.
Because when you’ve made the playoff in 16 of the last 18 seasons but have lost in the first or second round in 13 of those seasons, there isn’t going to be much faith in a deep playoff run. And when you compound that by blowing a 3-0 series lead in epic fashion in a manner that seems excessive even for the Sharks, the “playoff choker” reputation only propagates.
There were no playoffs last season for the Sharks, and as a result came a revamped roster with a new coaching staff and a new focus.
But ultimately, San Jose is in the same position it was two years ago: holding a commanding lead in a best-of-seven series over the Kings with the odds of advancing statistically stacked in its favor.
No Reason to Doubt
The realistic view is that the Sharks have no reason to be doubtful that they can win one more game and close out the Kings. They have proven this series that they can control the tempo of the game, clamp down on defense when necessary and come up with timely goals that they haven’t done in postseasons past.
In Game 1, the Sharks answered every Kings’ potential momentum-swinger, from Jake Muzzin’s goal less than three minutes in to Trevor Lewis’ shorthanded marker in the second period. Both goals gave the Kings the lead. And both times, the Sharks responded with a two-goal spurt, the latter of which won the game.
Game 2 saw the Sharks swarm the Kings on the defensive end, forcing them to the outside and denying them many scoring chances. When Vincent Lecavalier finally broke the seal late in the third for the Kings, cutting a 2-0 lead in half, the Sharks didn’t panic and held off a Kings’ tying push.
And on Wednesday night, the Sharks came up with a crucial win, one that changed the complexion of the series. After winning Game 3 in overtime, a Kings’ victory in Game 4 would have stolen home-ice advantage back from the Sharks and leveled the series 2-2 heading back to Staples Center. But the Sharks, with the help of three power play goals, made sure that didn’t happen. Again, after the Kings stormed back in the third to pull within a goal, the Sharks built a wall around the net, not allowing a shot on goal by the Kings for the final three minutes.
Now, they’re up 3-1, and must do everything they can to avoid a repeat of the 2014 postseason. On the surface, it seems entirely doable. The Sharks have proven time and again this series that they have a formula to beat the Kings. They’ve scored the first goal all four games. They’ve taken advantage of power plays. They’ve shut off the faucet on the Kings’ offense. They’ve found the back of the net when they’ve needed to.
Still, a Shadow Looms
The one caveat is that each game has been decided by a single goal — a couple bounces here, a couple of saves there and this series could be tied or even in the Kings’ favor. And that’s where the doubt may start to creep in if the Kings defend home ice on Friday. If Jonathan Quick gets hot, if the Kings find the Midas touch that led them to two Stanley Cups in recent years, then the Sharks are in trouble.
Again, they don’t need to be reminded of the last time they had a chance to clinch a playoffs series over the Kings. If they close the deal in Game 5 at Staples Center, those reminders will simply be remnants of the past. But if they don’t, the noise will get louder, the pundits more vociferous, the pressure more amped. A quick win on Friday would go a long ways toward building the confidence of the Sharks and showing to the hockey world that this time around, there will be no debacle.