If we’ve learned anything from watching hockey this week, it’s this: No lead is safe in the 2013 NHL playoffs.
Three days after the Boston Bruins pulled off a miraculous three-goal Game 7 comeback against the Maple Leafs, the defending champion Los Angeles Kings worked some last-minute magic of their own, scoring two power play goals 22 seconds apart to earn a stunning 4-3 win over the San Jose Sharks.
It’s fair to wonder after this one if the Sharks can recover. The visitors were on the verge of evening up the series, riding three unanswered goals to a 3-2 lead when the thrill ride began. Energetic rookie Tyler Toffoli was hauled down by San Jose’s Brad Stuart while driving the net, drawing a penalty at 17:19 of the third. Seconds later, Marc-Edouard Vlasic joined him in the box after clearing the puck into the crowd, putting the Kings on a five-on-three. And just like that, it was over. Dustin Brown pounced on a rebound of a Mike Richards shot and shoveled it behind Antti Niemi to tie the score. On the next shift, Trevor Lewis drove the net and buried another rebound, this one off a Toffoli shot, to seal the win with just 1:21 remaining.
For Los Angeles, this was a statement game. There’s more than one way the Kings can win.
As for the Sharks? They made a statement, too, only it was less flattering. They were the better team for much of the night. They scored three on Jonathan Quick. But in the end, they let the Kings take it away from them.
And their chance at winning the series may have gone with it.
Here are some more observations from Game 2:
• This was a different L.A. team than the one that took the opener. Put ‘em behind the eight-ball and the Kings can play an aggressive, exciting brand of hockey. After being outworked for most of the first two periods, the champs started to play with more than a hint of desperation to their game in the third. The pace picked up, the big guns started firing and the Sharks couldn’t match the Kings’ talent or their compete level.
• Anze Kopitar takes a deflected slap shot to the face early in the third period. Drops to the ice. Blood everywhere. Induces panic in Kings Nation. Less than 10 minutes later, he’s back in the game and winning the first draw he takes. That’s playoff tough right there.
• If you missed this one, you missed the coming-out party for Toffoli. The OHL’s leading scorer in 2010-11 has been brought along slowly this season by coach Darryl Sutter, but given the green light tonight he trumpeted his top-six potential. Quick, creative, hard on the puck and ready to go to the net, he was constantly in the middle of things. Sutter rewarded him with some key power play time on the second unit, and he looked good under pressure when the Kings were trying to tie it up. And the play to set up Lewis’ winner? He beat Stuart into the zone, stayed a step ahead of the defender and put the puck on the net. He didn’t overthink it, didn’t try to do too much. Just simple, smart, winning hockey.
• At least the Toronto Maple Leafs got to go home and hide under the covers after their meltdown. The Sharks have to get up in the morning and deal with the inevitable questions about their character.
There were three key breakdowns in the final sequence:
First, Vlasic, who was on the verge of being the hero for the Sharks when he scored the go-ahead goal 8:56 into the third, just had to get the puck off the boards and out of the zone while killing the Stuart penalty. He was under pressure from Jeff Carter, but the boards were right there. Throwing it over the glass was a panic play, and absolutely the last thing the Sharks could afford from their top defender. Second, there was Couture’s failure to clear the puck when he had it under control 20 feet from the blueline. No pressure this time — he just put it in a bad place. Finally, Joe Pavelski stopped moving his feet on the back check, allowing Lewis to drive the net untouched on the way to cashing in Toffoli’s rebound. At the end of a long shift you might expect dead legs. This was 20 seconds in. Unacceptable.
Are those plays symptomatic of character flaws or just bad execution? Probably a little from Column A and a little from Column B. The bigger question is, do the Sharks have it in them to respond?
• If the Sharks can take anything out of this loss, it’s that Quick is human after all. The Kings goalie stopped the first 51 shots he faced in the series before finally giving one up on a dazzling four-way passing play that Patrick Marleau simply tipped in from the top of the crease. But you don’t want to rely on that game though, which made their second and third goals more instructive. Stuart’s goal was a point blast that found its way through a maze of traffic. Vlasic’s came off a scramble that saw half a dozen bodies battling for turf in Quick’s crease. Not as pretty, but more reliably effective.
He doesn’t give up much, but Quick can be beat. The Sharks just have to remember how it’s done.
• Wasted in the loss was a step-up performance from Scott Gomez. Asked to fill in on the third line while Pavelski taking Raffi Torres’ spot on the second, the veteran center responded with his best game in years. He won six-of-eight draws, used his speed to great effect in transition, and set up San Jose’s second and third goals with a pair of great reads. With Torres out the rest of the series, another game or two like that in San Jose will be key to helping the Sharks extend the series.
• Pavelski was the Matt Frattin of this loss. He had a brilliant chance to extend the lead to two goals late in the third, and maybe put the game out of reach, when he grabbed a loose puck 10 feet in front of the net with Quick out of position. Instead of burying it, his backhand bid wobbled wide of the gaping cage. Inconsequential at the time, huge in hindsight. That one’s going to haunt him.