By Allan Muir
Los Angeles Kings forward Justin Williams had gone eight games without a goal heading into Tuesday night’s decisive battle against the San Jose Sharks. That’s probably because none of them had been a Game 7.
The struggling sniper broke out of his funk with a dazzling performance, leading the Kings to a 2-1 win over the Sharks that kept their dreams of repeating as Stanley Cup champions alive.
Williams has a history of making every kid’s street hockey fantasies come to life. He’s lit the lamp in each of his four career Game 7 appearances, and his five goals are the most of any active player. He also has four assists in those contests.
“Backs against the wall. Us or them. That’s what hockey players think about when they grow up. A chance to win it for your team in a do-or-die [game],” he said on the NBC Sports Network after the win.
Tonight, it was Williams living the dream.
Here are some thoughts and observations from tonight’s climactic thriller:
• The Kings move on to face the winner of Wednesday’s Game 7 between Detroit and Chicago, and deservedly so. No one can argue they don’t belong in the conference finals. But if the Sharks had won, you could say the exact same thing. “They’re as good as us,” Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter said of the Sharks, and he was right. They are … except on the scoreboard.
Other than that, there just wasn’t much to separate the two teams after a seven-game series that saw one score 14 goals and the other 10. Both teams played a heavy, gritty, opportunistic style to great effect. In the end, the Kings were just a little bit heavier, a little bit grittier and a little bit more opportunistic.
This was seven games of great theater. Probably too late for Gary Bettman to change it to a best-of-nine, eh?
• A series this close was bound to be decided by a small moment. In this case, it was the play leading up to Williams’ critical first goal.
Toward the end of a second-period power play with the Kings controlling the action in the offensive zone, the puck came back to Slava Voynov at the point. As he wound up to shoot, Logan Couture flung himself to the ice. As he did, his shin guards bounced off the surface slightly, creating a brief opening just as the puck reached him. The shot ended up missing the net, but it bounced off the end boards and straight to Williams, who took three whacks at it from behind the net before finally jamming it past Antti Niemi on the short side.
It was such a tiny window of opportunity, but the Kings took advantage of it. The ability to capitalize on those moments is what separates a great team like Los Angeles from the good ones in the playoffs.
• Williams was the First Star at the Staples Center. That’s fine, but truthfully, this game was won by Jonathan Quick, who somehow is crafting a better postseason run this year than the one that earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2012.
He made 25 stops on the night, 13 of those during a third-period barrage that felt more like 30 as San Jose laid siege in the Kings’ zone looking for the equalizer. This was Quick at his best: aggressive, agile, frighteningly fast and maybe a touch psychic as he seemed to be one step ahead of San Jose’s shooters all night.
How to cull the highlights from a night of larceny? Was his pad save on Scott Gomez’s redirect his best? What about that stop on Joe Pavelski where he sprawled to his left and got his glove up just in time to block that close-range bid? Or maybe it was his glove save on Couture’s shot from the slot with 1:19 left and six Sharks swarming deep in the Kings end? You pick. I can’t.
As Mike Milbury noted on the NBCSN postgame show, there are four teams pretty miserable about the fact that the Kings won tonight because it means Quick is still in the playoffs. Right now, he looks like the ultimate difference-maker, the one player capable of beating every other team by sheer force of will.
• Tip o’ the capt to Anze Kopitar, who won 14 of his 25 face-offs, including a pair toward the end that prevented San Jose from taking possession and setting up in the L.A. zone. It was also his pretty cross-ice pass that set Williams up for one-timer into a gaping cage while Niemi guarded the near side. The Kings needed Kopitar to be special tonight and he met the challenge.
• There will be questions asked in San Jose, of course. There always are after a team has been eliminated. But this time, finally, they won’t revolve around the character of the team. This wasn’t a choke job or a pale reflection of the team’s talent. When Joe Thornton says, “We played our hearts out,” you can believe him. That they came up on the losing end is more an indication of the dominance of Quick and the perseverance of the Kings than any obvious shortcomings on their part.
• Not that it was a perfect performance. On a night when the Kings’ best players elevated their games to meet the moment, San Jose’s leaders couldn’t quite match them. Sure, Dan Boyle was brilliant at both ends, blocking two shots, laying three hits and scoring San Jose’s lone goal early enough in the third to give the Sharks a real chance to tie it up. But the other big guys? Patrick Marleau, Thornton, Pavelski and Couture were blanked, again. Not for lack of effort — they probably generated six premium chances between them — but they’re not paid to try hard. They’re paid to produce and they didn’t get it done.
Then there were the breakdowns in discipline. Four minors they took, and each one of them was 200 feet from their own goal. When have you ever seen that before?
And coach Todd McLellan opened himself up to second-guessing by continuing to roll four lines deep into the third, despite the need for offense. Coming into the contest, the Sharks had received zero goals from their third and fourth lines, and his insistence on throwing Bracken Kearns and Adam Burish and James Sheppard over the boards with the game on the line didn’t change that bleak stat.
Yes, the big guns are ultimately responsible for lighting the lamp, but when they can’t do it, the best teams tend to get something from the grinders. That the Sharks didn’t may have been the difference in this series.
• What a tough-luck loss for Niemi. His 16-stop performance might not earn a spot in Sharks history, but he battled hard from the start, keeping the contest close and giving his teammates a chance to win. He twice prevented a downpour of hats by robbing Williams on 10-bell chances in tight, and later denied Jeff Carter on a breakaway bid that would have broken the game wide open.
No doubt he’ll want that first goal back. Maybe he’ll wonder why he didn’t get the quick whistle on the one that Quick got later at the other end of the ice. Doesn’t matter. He looked the part of a Vezina finalist tonight, just as he had throughout the series. He did enough to win … just not against Quick.