For the second consecutive year, the San Jose Sharks have reached the Western Conference Finals and sit four wins away from a chance to play for the Stanley Cup. After winning a fourth consecutive division title and holding off a tough Detroit squad in the conference semifinals, it's hard to say San Jose hasn't earned the opportunity to play for the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl.
But for someone like Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, who feels like he could have helped oust the Sharks a month ago, it's hard to watch San Jose play and not wonder about what could have been.
"It absolutely could have been different," Quick told NHL.com on Wednesday.
If San Jose reaches its first Stanley Cup Final, or even winds up lifting the Cup, the Sharks likely will be portrayed as a franchise that overcame its reputation of being long on regular-season wins and short on postseason success to win its first championship. The Sharks' first-round victory in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, like the first-round victory of so many other champions, more likely would be a footnote than a defining moment.
However, even a cursory look at the scores from that series makes it very obvious that this was far from your standard six-game series. While the Kings can be admired for showing the grit to force a sixth game when facing elimination on the road or rallying to tie San Jose twice in what proved to be the series finale, the one thing that sticks out is that three different games went to overtime.
And the Sharks won all of them.
Playoff overtime can be a very cruel mistress, as one errant bounce, one bad pass or one messy line change can end a game or a season. A break here or there just as easily could have placed the Kings in the second round instead of the Sharks. But even as some teams can obsess over what could have happened, Quick can think about what should have, as one of those overtime losses, in Game 3, saw the Kings let a 4-0 lead slip away in one of the biggest collapses in postseason history.
"We had them at our rink, we're up 4-0 in a pivotal Game 3 there," Quick said. "I'm not taking anything away from them. They moved the puck well and they created some chances on their own, but we certainly gave them a few goals there as a team where just bad plays or mental mistakes -- things you can't do wrong in a playoff game. So you obviously feel like you let that one slip."
Those types of losses can grate on a team, and sometimes break them. No one knows that better than Quick, who was in net for all six goals in that Game 3 loss.
In just his second postseason, Quick steadily improved over his first trip to the playoffs. In a six-game loss to Vancouver in 2010, he gave up 21 goals in six games, compiling a 3.50 goals-against average and an .885 save percentage.
This time Quick actually gave up 20 goals in six games, but did so while facing 48 more shots and playing 20 more minutes, thanks to the teams' penchant for extra time. At times this postseason his play was exquisite, as was the case during a 34-save shutout in Game 2 and a 51-save outing on the road in Game 5 that held the Kings' season in the balance and rates among the top goaltending performances of this year's playoffs.
In between those impressive wins, though, were back-to-back six-goal outings, including L.A.'s Game 3 meltdown -- a sign of almost maddening inconsistency to Kings fans and Quick himself.
"Going throughout the game, I felt like I played well," Quick said. "At the same time, you look at those numbers and you can't help to think, 'You know, there's more I could have done.'"
Chalk it up as a learning experience. If the Kings -- and Quick -- continue what has been an impressive progression so far, the frustrations of the 2011 postseason may pay off in the long run. Most observers would agree that Quick, who is only 25 years old, and the Kings have very bright futures ahead of them, and this postseason could serve as an important step. Not only did the players show remarkable resilience after a crushing defeat against a division rival, but they did so without their leading scorer, Anze Kopitar, who missed the postseason with a broken ankle.
Adding Kopitar's scoring potential could have changed the result, but as Quick notes, his responsible two-way play and penalty killing were what the Kings missed most from the versatile forward.
Of course, while Quick and the Kings likely will spend the summer wondering what difference Kopitar or a lucky bounce in one of those three overtime games could have made, he has kept the entire season in perspective.
"Obviously it's a disappointing feeling when your season ends," Quick said. "But you look back at what you accomplished throughout the year. The Western Conference was a tough conference to get into the playoffs. I thought the young team we had, we faced a little adversity midseason, we kind of fell out of the top eight. I think we were ranked 11th or 12th place, and we fought to climb back into the playoffs.
"That's a team we played well against, San Jose. At times we got away from our game a little bit and at times I feel like I could have been better for the team. But it's something you've got to learn from and build off."
With four months to go until October, the Kings have plenty of time to learn, and if their frustrating playoff loss to San Jose can show them anything, it's the promise that resides in Los Angeles.
Even if Quick and the Kings still have some things to learn, however, the plausibility of them attaining their ultimate goal doesn't seem to be one of them.
"We want to win that Stanley Cup next year," Quick said. "There's not a doubt in our minds whether we can or can't do it."
Reach David Kalan at firstname.lastname@example.org.