In the moments before puck drop, the Los Angeles Kings showed a video montage of highlights from last year’s Stanley Cup victory on the scoreboard at Staples Center. It was a reminder of the task at hand – facing an elimination game for the first time in two years against an unusually resilient San Jose Sharks team – and the possible rewards that could accompany a victory.
Hours later, the Kings had found just enough of last year’s magic when they needed it most Tuesday night, receiving another virtuoso performance from goaltender Jonathan Quick plus two goals from forward Justin Williams to defeat the Sharks 2-1 and win the best-of-seven Western Conference semi-final series by a 4-3 margin.
The Kings will now play the winner of the second Western semi-final between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings, which concludes Wednesday night in the Windy City, in the conference championship.
It was a low-scoring series, in which both the goaltenders, Quick and the Sharks’ Antti Niemi, were their respective teams’ most valuable players.
“I don’t know if you’ll see goaltending like that in other series,” said Sharks coach Todd McLellan. “Maybe you will, but it was a pretty special series for goaltending.”
The buzz is starting to return in L.A., where celebrities as diverse as Tom Cruise, the Beckham family and Justin Bieber were all enjoying various degrees of Kings fever by taking in the game at Staples Center, where the Kings have won 14 games in a row now dating back to the regular season.
The Kings are trying to become the first team since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings to win back-to-back championships. It hasn’t been nearly as easy a path this year as opposed to last year when the Kings went 16-4, running roughshod over the competition.
This year, the Kings fell behind 2-0 to the St. Louis Blues, but rallied to win the series with four consecutive victories. The Sharks series was a completely different kettle of fish – the home team won each of the first six games of a low-scoring, hard-working, physically challenging series.
Williams is thought to be playing with an undisclosed injury and hadn’t scored in eight games – or since the fourth game of the Blues series. But he had a second period to remember, scoring twice and likely generating the two best scoring chances of the third that didn’t go in.
Williams had seven points in his three previous career Game 7s and with his two goals, he became the first player in NHL history to score at least once in each of his first four career Game 7s.
“I certainly enjoy pressure situations, I know everyone in this dressing room does,” said Williams. “We pride ourselves on being a team that, push comes to shove, we’re going to get it done. We’ve been through it before and we know we can do it.”
Williams’s first goal came 4:11 into the second period, on the power play, with the Sharks’ Brent Burns off for interfering with Kings defenceman Robyn Regehr. On the play, Williams settled in below the goal line and started at banging away at a loose puck beside goaltender Antti Niemi until it squirted up and over the goal line.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was an important turning point, given how the team that scored first had won each of the first six games in the series. The Kings had generated little offensively up to that point in the game – and actually went the final 14-plus minutes of the opening period without even generating a shot.
L.A. extended its lead to 2-0 at the 7:08 mark by taking advantage of a poor line change by the Sharks to convert a four-on-two rush. Quick had just foiled a good Sharks’ surge in which both Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture had good scoring chances. But with the Sharks filing towards the bench, Kings defenceman Slava Voynov led the rush the other way and made a cute drop pass to Anze Kopitar, who fed Williams for a one-timer from the middle of the faceoff circle. Niemi couldn’t get over in time to stop the shot.
That stood up as the winner, after the Sharks closed the gap to a single goal 5:26 into the third, when Dan Boyle scored his third goal of the playoffs, a play made possible when a Marleau forechecking foray created a turnover in the Kings zone. Joe Pavelski got it back to the point and Boyle wasted no time scoring on a screened slap shot that Quick couldn’t pick up until it was too late.
From there, the Sharks made a hard final push to get a tie, while the Kings turned to a familiar figure – Quick – to shut the door. Once, with 5:04 to go in the third, the Kings iced the puck and had a tired group on the ice, when the Sharks won a draw cleanly back to Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Quick made the original save and then sprawled to take a sure goal away from a wide-open Pavelski, who couldn’t lift the puck over the Kings’ athletic goaltender.
With Niemi on the bench, the Sharks swarmed the Kings net and were a little unlucky when Couture broke his stick while they had great pressure on.
“We couldn’t get one extra past Quick, that’s probably what it was,” said McLellan. “When I look at the game tonight, they got a power-play goal that we didn’t get, and we didn’t give them much time on it. And it was a lucky one, when you break the stick, the timing of that shot fools everybody including the goaltender. That was a tough one, and then the second one they got was we had overextended a shift and they took advantage of it. So in the end we probably made one more mistake than they did and we couldn’t find a way to get another puck by Quick. We’d love to go back and play Game 2 over again, the last four or five minutes. That’s probably one that we needed and didn’t get.”
McLellan was referring to a game the Sharks led until late into the third period, but gave up a pair of back-to-back power-play goals and ultimately lost.
“They are a real good team,” said Sharks captain Joe Thornton, who also had a strong series for San Jose. “We thought we could come in here and steal a game. We played our hearts out and that’s all you can ask of each other. We had to lay it on the line in the third and I thought we did. Jonathan Quick is just a fantastic goalie. It’s disappointing right now. We were just having so much fun. It’s disappointing that it has to end because we were really enjoying this. It’s a tough way to finish.”
Quick, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner as last year’s playoff MVP, is putting up even more impressive numbers this year. He leads all starting NHL goalies in playoff goals-against average, shutouts and save percentage.
Overall, Quick has stopped 362 of 382 shots in the playoffs for a .948 save percentage, marginally better than the .946 he managed during last year’s championship run.
“They’re as good as us,” assessed Kings head coach Darryl Sutter. “It was a low-scoring series, just crazy. What did it end up? We had 14 goals, they had 10. That’s 2 to 1.4. That’s how close it is. One game is overtime, one goal is an empty-net goal. There were four 2-1 games and two shutouts. It reminds me of another Game 7 in the Stanley Cup finals that we lost. Give both teams lots of credit.”
Sutter was referring to the 2004 playoffs when, as the head coach of the Calgary Flames, they lost in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final to the Tampa Bay Lightning. His point was that the margin of error is very small at this level, and sometimes, it’s a fortuitous break that makes the difference between winning and losing.
It was a point Williams echoed as well.
“Sometimes you get a few more opportunities than you usually get,” said Williams. “Sometimes you can’t explain it, but my line makes some great passes to me and some good turnovers, and we were able to hold on.”