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Sharks face big decision in goal for Game 6

by Eric Gilmore

SAN JOSE -- After he waited until the morning of Game 1 of his team's Western Conference First Round series against the Los Angeles Kings to publicly name Antti Niemi his starting goaltender, San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan said it was an easy decision and one he had actually made days before.

Pearn: Game 5 could be wakeup call Sharks needed

For additional insight into the Stanley Cup Playoff series between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings, has enlisted the help of former NHL coach Perry Pearn to break down the action. Pearn will be checking in throughout the series.

Pearn has spent the past 18 seasons as an assistant coach in the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets, Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens and a second tenure with the Jets in 2012-13 and 2013-14.

SAN JOSE -- After playing well and establishing a commanding lead in this Western Conference First Round series, the San Jose Sharks have finally been presented with some adversity against the Los Angeles Kings.

The Kings have won two straight to make it a 3-2 series lead for the Sharks, and will play Game 6 on Monday at Staples Center (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS, CSN-CA, PRIME).

"It felt like it was a complete role reversal from the first three games of the series in the first period," Pearn said. "L.A. looked quicker. L.A.'s transition game seemed much better. San Jose was chasing the game right from the drop of the puck. I think the last two periods probably didn't matter because the game was decided in that first period.

"Certainly it wasn't the same San Jose team that had played for sure the first three games and I think you still saw the same intensity in Game 4 even though they didn't win."

The Kings jumped on the Sharks early, dominating the puck and peppering goaltender Antti Niemi. They scored twice on 18 shots in the first period and a third on their first attempt of the second before Niemi was replaced by Alex Stalock.

It wasn't just the score; Los Angeles had 22 of the 29 shot attempts at even strength in the first period, and generated chances both on the rush and after consistent time in the offensive end.

San Jose was unable to match the desperation Los Angeles played with, and it showed early and often in Game 5.

"It was my sense, that the Sharks looked like would have won the game if it had been easy, but it didn't look like they wanted to win it the hard way, the way that they had played in the first four games of the series," Pearn said. "There was no way that game was an intense or as physical as some of the other earlier games. It was still physical but not at the same level, I don't think."

San Jose was forcing Los Angeles into mistakes earlier in this series, but the Kings have played better in each of the past three games. The Sharks aren't finding as many odd-man rushes, the goals aren't flowing like they once were.

"I think [Game 5] could serve as a bit of a wakeup call," Pearn said. "It might actually be easier for the Sharks to close the series on the road. I think they can get back to just playing the way they want. I thought part of the problem was they were trying to force things. Earlier in the series, that's what we saw from L.A., the turnovers that created transition chances. [Saturday] night it looked like San Jose was forcing things and creating problems.

"The penalty that [Justin] Braun took that led to the power-play goal looked like it was forced and he ended up taking the tripping penalty. The second goal was a 3-on-2 after a bad decision by [Brent] Burns to throw it in the air across the ice. If you make the play, it is high risk, but if you miss you know it is going the other way. We didn't see San Jose making these kinds of mistakes earlier in the series."

These were two of the best teams in the League at controlling the puck and dominating possession during the regular season. The Kings have started to assert themselves a little more in that area in the past few games.

One way for the Sharks to combat that is control the game when it is not at even strength. The Kings had some discipline issues earlier in the series, and the Sharks have scored four times on the power play.

"The special teams is always so crucial," Pearn said. "L.A. won the special teams battle [Saturday] night, but to me San Jose has the advantage with the power play if they're clicking. [Saturday] night they didn't score, but I had a sense in the game that had they scored -- and they had a couple of chances -- it would have given them some momentum and it would have been a much closer battle at the end than it was. Going forward in the next two games, I think the power play is going to be a big factor if San Jose is going to be successful."

-- Corey Masisak


McLellan has another goaltender decision to make before Game 6 Monday night at Staples Center (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS, CSN-CA, PRIME) after pulling Niemi in Games 4 and 5. This time, it might not be so easy.

Niemi gave up eight goals on 45 shots in Games 4 and 5, and the Sharks lost back-to-back games and saw their lead in this best-of-7 series shrink to 3-2.

Alex Stalock came off the bench to stop all four shots he faced in Game 4 and all 22 he faced in Game 5.

"We've got to talk about that yet today," McLellan said Sunday after the Sharks' practice. "We'll make a decision and let him know when it's time."

What goes into the goaltender decision?

"We sit down and we look at past experience," McLellan said. "We look at how that individual is playing at the moment. We look at how the team's responding around him. We look at the confidence level of the individual. We look at the workload that individual has had. We look at the upcoming schedule. We look at where we are in a practice rotation."

Niemi has the clear edge in Stanley Cup Playoffs experience. He won the Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 and has appeared in 61 playoff games. Stalock, however, has better numbers than Niemi this postseason and, for that matter, had better numbers in the regular season.

Stalock went 12-5-2 with a 1.87 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. Niemi went 39-17-7 with a 2.39 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. Stalock also has better stick handling and passing skills, which could help the Sharks get the puck out of their zone against the Kings, which has been a problem the past two games.

"Al's always looked good," Sharks forward Logan Couture said. "I've been with Al for years. I was with him in the minors. I've seen him play a lot of games. I'm confident with Al, and I'm confident with Nemo, both of them. I've been around Al for a while. He's a battler.

"The last game I don't really think that was Nemo's fault. We gave up 18 shots in the first period. Hung him out to dry on those goals. Both guys we're confident in."

For what it's worth, Stalock was the first goaltender off the ice Sunday, going to the dressing room long before Niemi. Stalock typically stays on the ice much longer than he did Sunday for practices the day before games when he's not in the lineup.

Stalock made his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut in Game 4, taking over less than a minute into the third period. He took over in Game 5 less than a minute into the second period.

"It was good," Stalock said. "I've said before we even started, I haven't personally been in playoffs since my rookie year [with Worcester of the American Hockey League]. Just to be back in them, it's a fun time of year. It's the goal, obviously, every year to get in. Get some chances and make the most of it."

McLellan said Stalock "looked pretty good" in his two relief efforts. "He looked good in practice. We have two to pick from."

Stalock didn't sound fazed by the possibility of making his first postseason start for the Sharks.

"All year it's been just being ready," he said. "If it is, you get a chance and you go in."

While McLellan pondered his goaltender decision, the Sharks tried to move past their disappointing 3-0 loss in Game 5 and get ready for Game 6.

"They took it to us at the start of that game," Couture said. "We expected better out of ourselves and we didn't get it from player to player. No one was very good. So yeah, it was disappointing for sure that we didn't play better [Saturday] in front of our home crowd with what we had in front of us, an opportunity to close out a series. But we still got an opportunity going into L.A. to do the same thing. We know it's going to be difficult so we're going to need to be a lot better."

The Sharks reviewed video of their Game 5 loss then hit the ice for a high-tempo practice.

"We're still in the driver's seat," McLellan said. "We like where we're at. It would have been nice to get a win in Game 4, but it didn't happen. We didn't play well in Game 5 and it didn't happen.

"I still think we have a great opportunity in front of us. ... We earned the right to be ahead, and now we have to make good on it."

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