There is nothing quite like the drama of a Game 7 in the NHL playoffs, especially when it's a Game 7 in a roller coaster series in which the first three games went to one team and the next three went to the other.
And that's what we've got: The Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks are going down to the wire for the second straight year.
As franchises, the Kings and Sharks have been defined by their recent playoff results. By virtue of winning the 2012 Stanley Cup and advancing to the semi-finals last year, the Kings are the plucky, blue-collar worker bees who have just enough talent to get into the playoffs every year and then physically wear down their opponents.
The Sharks, by contrast, are as consistent as metronomes season after regular season, but they just haven't quite put it together in the playoffs.
That all looked to be changing this spring when the Sharks romped to wins in the first two games of this series – unexpected beat-downs that drove Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick from the net and had him sporting one of the ugliest goals-against averages in recent playoff history. L.A. lost Game 3 in overtime.
But the past three games have featured a far different version of Quick, the one who won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2012 and had been the goalie of record in 25 playoff victories over the past two years – the most in the NHL over that span. That a team with the Kings' playoff pedigree had played so poorly was a mystifying development. The fact that they've played their way back into the series shouldn't come as that much of a surprise.
"They played better than we did the last three games, and we played better than they did in the first three games," said Sharks centre Logan Couture. "In my mind, if it gets to Game 7, it doesn't matter how it gets there. You're going for one game. You've played all year for home ice. I'm sure our building's going to be loud – and we've got to go win a hockey game and turn this thing around."
Only nine teams in NHL history have ever fallen behind 3-0 in a series and battled back to even terms. San Jose was involved in one of those series – in the 2011 second round, when the Sharks won the first three and then lost the next three to Detroit.
They should take heart: In that deciding seventh game, the Sharks beat the Red Wings 3-2 and won the series. They didn't have much left in the tank for the next round and fell to a Vancouver Canucks team that was on its way to the Stanley Cup final, but they did avoid a historical collapse that would have likely cost some people their jobs.
Six times, the team that rallied from a 3-0 deficit failed to complete the comeback. The exceptions: the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, the '75 New York Islanders and the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers, a team that included Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, two players now with L.A.
And while the Kings may have the momentum, San Jose has a distinct edge on home ice, losing only twice there to Los Angeles in their previous 14 meetings, regular-season and playoffs.
The Sharks played Game 6 without their top defenceman, Marc-Édouard Vlasic, the Canadian Olympian who'd been injured on a hit from the Kings' Jarret Stoll the game before. They also switched goalies, from Antti Niemi to the rookie Alex Stalock, on the grounds that Stalock was a better puck-handler and that Niemi had been inconsistent all year and didn't inspire a ton of confidence. Stalock did fine in his first start, and got a little unlucky on the winning goal, in which the Kings' Justin Williams appeared to push Stalock (and the puck) into the net.
Sharks coach Todd McLellan – to his credit – warned his players a week ago that, until they actually closed out the Kings by winning the fourth game, they could take nothing for granted. The Kings have outscored San Jose 16-8 in the past four games, and several of San Jose's top scorers, including Joe Thornton, need to get untracked.
"We need a Game 7 performance from everybody," said McLellan. "Our big guys are going to have to find a way to get on the board at some point. We have done it before, and can do it again."
Kings coach Darryl Sutter summed it up in his own phlegmatic way: "There's really no difference if you're down three or up three, it's still about closing it out. Somebody is going to win Game 7. Somebody is going to lose."