Despite the Kings’ third-period rally that made the final score in Game 1 much closer than the Sharks wanted after having a comfortable 5-0 lead through two periods, the series opener was still distinctly controlled by San Jose from the outset.
Receiving goals from all four lines and a defenseman, as well as having 12 of their 18 skaters contribute at least one point, expresses the obvious ways that the Sharks got the upper hand on the Kings.
However, when looking at the game a bit more closely, there are a handful of less obvious events that had just as much to do with why San Jose so thoroughly took control of Game 1 en route to its 6-3 victory.
The Sharks Mastered The Puck Possession Game
During the regular season, both the Sharks and Kings were lauded as two of the NHL’s elite puck possession teams.
As such, when facing each other in the playoffs, something had to give since it’s not physically possible for two teams to dominate possession of a single puck in the same game. In Game 1, the Sharks won most of the puck possession battles, mainly by establishing a solid forecheck that pinned the Kings in their own end for long stretches and forcing several key turnovers that directly led to San Jose odd-man rushes that turned into goals.
San Jose’s most decided advantage in the puck possession department took place early in the game.
In fact, before the Sharks broke Game 1 open with their fourth and fifth goals of the game during the second period, they managed the puck so efficiently that their playoff possession numbers were better than any playoff team to have started its series so far – interestingly enough, six of the NHL’s first seven playoff games were won by the teams that possessed the puck more than their opponents, with the Colorado Avalanche /Minnesota Wild opener as the lone exception where the teams were virtually even in puck possession before Colorado squeaked out its overtime victory.
In total, 13 of the Sharks’ 18 skaters had positive puck possession numbers, with Joe Thornton (1g, 0a) and Brent Burns (1g, 1a) leading the way. Although, Matt Nieto (0g, 1a), who dressed in favor of Marty Havlat and mostly skated on the Couture/Marleau line, had the best possession numbers on the team before San Jose turned the game into a blowout.
San Jose’s Physical Play Wore LA Down
As was expected, the Sharks/Kings opener was far and away more physical than any other series to have begun so far.
Game 1 Total Hits
Penguins/Blue Jackets: 75
Blues/Blackhawks: 69 (including three overtimes)
Avalanche/Wild: 68 (including overtime)
Lightning/Canadiens: 67 (including overtime)
No Sharks duo was more instrumental with its physical play than Raffi Torres (7 hits) and Mike Brown (3 hits), whose hustle and willingness to play the body wreaked havoc all night.
The most noticeable example of how effective Torres and Brown’s physical play was came when Brown drove the net in the first period and knocked an LA defenseman and Jonathan Quick over in the process. However, San Jose’s “fourth line’s” -- which also included Andrew Desjardins, who was a game-best 70 percent on faceoffs – aggressive style also put the Kings’ defense under constant duress, and even directly led to the fourth Sharks goal, scored by Torres.
As can be seen in the highlight (below), as Marc-Edouard Vlasic carries the puck into the LA zone, Brown bullies his way straight to the Kings goal. By doing so, he drags the Kings defenseman (Willie Mitchell) and center (Jarret Stoll) with him to the net, since they are forced to cover him and not leave him wide open right in front of Quick.
The result of Brown’s hustle is that while the Kings are forced to cover him, they must completely abandon the upper slot, where Torres is able to arrive and field a loose puck that he snaps past Quick without much defensive resistance due to the area being vacated.
They Said It: “They were banging early. You could feel their energy, and I just think it excited everybody else. They started the whole momentum shift for us tonight.” - Joe Thornton, on the Desjardins/Torres/Brown line.
Brains and Braun
Although he was one of only six Sharks skaters not to register a point, Justin Braun made two non-descript, intelligent plays with the puck that directly led to San Jose goals – the two consecutive Sharks goals in the last minute of the first period that really broke the Kings’ backs, at that.
First, Braun facilitated the Tomas Hertl goal that made it 2-0 Sharks by corralling the puck near center ice, fading backwards towards his own zone and lulling the Kings into a false sense of security that he quickly eliminated with an off-balance pass right to the stick of Tommy Wingels.
As Braun fades back with the puck, he tricks the Kings duo of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter into thinking there’s an opening to get off the ice for a line change– this is precisely when Braun zips an unexpected pass off his back foot to Wingels and traps the Kings out of position.
Braun, to Wingels, to Sheppard, to Hertl, in the net. No point for Braun, who made the play happen, despite being a hundred feet away when Hertl finished it off.
Seconds later, Braun made a similar play that led to Marleau’s goal that made it 3-0.
As Drew Doughty attempts to thread the needle with a pass to Dustin Brown at the Sharks blue line, Braun cleverly steps up and deftly breaks the Kings rush up with a quick flick of his stick.
The perfect timing of Braun’s unexpected step up catches LA off guard, and gives the Sharks numbers with the puck going the other way.
Braun, to Sheppard, to Marleau, to Nieto, to Marleau, in the net. No point for Braun again, so we might as well recognize him here.
Vlasic's Puck Support Leads To A Goal
Vlasic has only recently started getting League-wide attention as one of the NHL’s best defensemen, due to his most compelling contributions often being left off of the scoresheet in the game’s details.
Although Vlasic had two points, was named Game 1’s first star and did indeed score the team’s fifth goal, his best play on the scenario that led to his goal may have been his unsung actions in the defensive zone.
The sequence starts when Mike Richards leads a shorthanded rush, where he and Jason Demers jockey for the puck in the Sharks zone.
Instead of assuming that he could idle out at center ice and wait for a pass with his team up a man, Vlasic hustles back hard and provides excellent puck support as Demers struggles to fend off a hard-charging Richards – Vlasic’s coming all the way back to his zone allows Demers to easily slide him the puck even while being hounded by Richards.
Just like that, Vlasic has the puck as a result of supporting Demers. He then sends San Jose in the other direction, finishing off the play he started by once again providing outstanding puck support (to his forwards, this time) who he is suddenly able to be a passing option for as the late man coming into the zone.
Vlasic then sneaks a shot through Quick’s usually stingy five-hole, and the route is on.
Sharks Not So “Quick” To Get Excited
Considering that the home team won all seven playoff games between the Sharks and Kings last season, San Jose emerging as the victor from Game 1 isn’t the most surprising result in the world.
However, the manner the Sharks won in has to be considered surprising, since the team netted six goals against the Kings in one game after only scoring a combined 10 in the teams’ seven-game series last year.
Not to mention, Jonathan Quick was chased from a playoff start for only the second time in his NHL career, finishing with arguably his ugliest playoff performance since the Sharks potted six goals against him in consecutive San Jose wins at Staples Center in 2011.
But, just as soon as blowing out Quick and the Kings would suggest that the Sharks are in complete control, LA mounted a three-goal rally in the third period. And although the Kings came up short in their comeback bid and San Jose still prevailed, the way the latter stages of Game 1 finished left the Sharks with a feeling that the rest of the series will be just as difficult as the third period of Game 1 was, and not at all like how easy the first two periods seemed to be.
They Said It: “They’re a big, strong team. We’re fooling ourselves if we think this is going to be a quick series. We know they’re going to bounce back, and we have to be ready for them.” – Raffi Torres, following Game 1.