Just in case you don’t recognize the turning of a phrase, consider the Merriam-Webster definition of the word wrest:
Saturday night’s game between the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings featured enough pulling, forcing and moving by violent wringing and twisting movements to qualify as such, not to mention as a playoff-caliber battle between the two Pacific Division rivals. In the end, Antti Niemi turned aside 28 shots and Ryan Clowe scored the lone shootout goal, leading the surging Sharks to a 2-1 win over the Kings in front of 17,562 taped-glasses wielding computer nerds (read: software engineers) at the HP Pavilion. Just kidding, Sharks fans — by the statistics, only about 60% of you wear glasses.
The game featured an elephant-in-the-room subplot for Los Angeles: Darryl Sutter’s second game behind the bench after the dismissal of former head coach Terry Murray. The Kings, billed by many as a Stanley Cup contender after General Manager Dean Lombardi acquired former All Star centerman Mike Richards, landed sniper Simon Gagne and inked franchise defenseman Drew Doughty to a long-term contract, nevertheless struggled to find their offense almost out of the gate. Despite a solid start, the team fizzled, ultimately losing four games in a row in early December. A listless 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars was the final straw, as Murray was fired two days later.
After posting a 2-2 record under interim coach John Stevens, the team turned to new head coach Darryl Sutter to right the ship. Sutter, known as a tough (but fair), no-nonsense head coach, played seven seasons in the NHL and was a head coach for 12 more, reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 2003-04 with the Calgary Flames. Lombardi hired Sutter with the hope that his intensity would help turn around the team’s flagging season.
Following an energy-charged first win over the Anaheim Ducks, Sutter took his new team back to his old San Jose stomping grounds, where he coached from 1997-2003. Asked about the significance of his return, he said: “I’ve been here enough, and we’ve been through enough with San Jose and the Flames, in the playoffs and all those things. It’s a long time. But still, the best part is coming back and seeing people, outside the game, that you see (here). That’s still the best part.’’
The Sharks, by contrast, literally exude stability and self-assurance from their gills. After stumbling a tad themselves in early December, they were riding a three-game winning streak coming into the game against the Kings, including a 7-2 pounding of the Tamp Bay Lightning two days earlier. “They didn’t have much energy in the first period and we jumped on them,” said center Logan Couture, who tallied two goals. “We scored, and then scored and scored and scored.”
To bastardize Winston Churchill, Saturday night’s game versus Los Angeles was a defensive struggle, wrapped in a goaltending duel inside a Shark Tank. The teams came out energetically, clogging the middle and shooting lanes while forechecking aggressively. With 10:50 left in the opening period, Anze Kopitar collected a turnover and feathered a highlight-reel saucer pass cross-crease to a crashing Brad Richardson, who managed to get the blade of his stick on it and direct it toward the net. Sharks’ netminder Antti Niemi somehow got his right leg out just in time to make a toe save. With about 1:30 remaining, Joe Pavelski’s backhander at the side of the net was turned aside by Kings’ goalie Jonathan Quick. After one, the game was scoreless, with Los Angeles holding a slim 7-5 advantage in shots.
At 7:53 of the second period, the Sharks broke the scoreless tie. Patrick Marleau dug the puck out from behind the Kings’ net and reversed it to Ryane Clowe, who spotted Logan Couture open in the slot. He zipped the puck to Couture who one-timed it past Quick for the 1-0 lead. Late in the second period, the Kings struck back in much the same fashion. With Couture serving a two-minute penalty for interference, Drew Doughty won a battle for the puck along the boards and sent it to Kopitar, who spied Mike Richards open between the circles. He passed to Richards who collected the puck, then snapped it into the net, tying the game 1-1. At the second period drew to a close, the game remained tied, with the Kings holding the edge in shots, 17-15.
In the third, Couture and Jarret Stoll traded huge blasts that all but shook the respective goalies as they made big saves, preserving the tie. Later in the period, Ryane Clowe and Jamie McGinn nearly connected on a bang-bang play, with McGinn’s redirection thwarted by Quick. When regulation ended, the game was still tied 1-1. “We play L.A. a lot, and every game’s like that,” said Couture after the game. “They’re a great defensive team. They’re good on the forecheck. They play hard. We expect a battle every time those guys are in our building or we’re in theirs. There’s a rivalry between the two teams, and you can definitely feel it out there. We expected the battle and we got it.”
After a scoreless overtime, the game went to a shootout. Joe Pavelski, Michal Handzus and DanBoyle missed on their efforts; Jarret Stoll, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown were unable to convert for Los Angeles. Finally, it was Ryan Clowe’s turn. “I was thinking that the whole time, that I was going to try to shoot low blocker,” he said. “And I’ve gone against Quick a couple times and gone to my backhand, so I figured I’d try to mix it up.” Clowe closed in on Quick, deked, then switched to the forehand and wristed the puck into the net, putting the Sharks on top. Mike Richards’ final attempt was saved by Niemi, securing the bonus point and sending the Sharks into the Christmas break on a four-game winning streak.
“Those are always must-have wins,” San Jose captain Joe Thornton said of games before breaks. “Fans go home happy, we go home happy and we’ll have a good Christmas.”
For the Kings, head coach Darryl Sutter was obviously disappointed with the outcome, but not the body of work. “I was fine with the effort. We scored a power-play goal, our penalty killing did a heck of a job, and at the end of the day it was left to the two goalies.’’
The Sharks and Kings now get the weekend off to rest up. I don’t think I need to pull out the dictionary on that one.