Home-ice advantage seemed to mean everything entering Game 3 in Los Angeles.
Western Conference teams had been a perfect 11-0 at home during the 2014 playoffs.
The Sharks had lost their last four playoff games at Staples Center, with the home team having won nine straight playoff games contested between the Sharks and the Kings, overall.
In fact, even besides its playoff slump in LA, San Jose had not taken a game of any kind at Staples Center in over two years, which between playoff and regular-season games totaled eight straight defeats.
All of these streaks went up in smoke precisely 6:20 into overtime on Tuesday night, when the longest tenured Shark, Patrick Marleau, lofted a soft backhander that deflected off Kings defenseman Slava Voynov’s stick just enough to elude the outstretched body of LA goalie Jonathan Quick.
Marleau’s goal was the exact moment that home-ice advantage evaporated.
Although, a Kings mistake earlier on the sequence is what perhaps really opened the door for San Jose to deliver the blow that gives it a stranglehold of a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The Importance Of Execution
Sometimes, defense is the hardest position to evaluate in hockey.
After all, there are fewer tangible stats that accurately measure the performance of defensemen than there are for forwards and goalies.
Although there really isn’t a stat for it, one skill that NHL coaches often judge defensemen most on is their ability to make quality, first breakout passes. These passes, even more than points scored – which can depend on the forwards’ abilities to finish plays – is how coaches usually evaluate a blueliner’s talents with the puck.
The idea being, in the most basic terms, that strong breakout passes allow teams to get more time in the offensive zone and presumably score more goals, while poor breakout passes cause turnovers, keeping teams pinned in their own zone and enabling their opponents to score more goals.
The Kings’ failure to execute what should’ve amounted to a routine breakout pass greatly aided the Sharks in scoring the game-winner, as much as Marleau deserves credit for firing the shot and the team deserves credit for accumulating traffic in front of Quick.
With 13:50 remaining in the overtime, Quick fields an innocent-looking Marleau dump-in and hands the puck off to Voynov, who is tasked with executing a quality breakout pass in order for LA to get the puck out of harm’s way.
With Voynov’s target, Trevor Lewis, about 15 feet away and not a ton of Sharks forechecking pressure on him, this should be a fundamental play – one that teams practice infinitely throughout the season.
But, something goes wrong.
With the closest Shark– Scott Hannan at the point – not putting on a ton of pressure, Lewis is wide open. With Marleau also not going in heavy on Voynov, there’s plenty of time and space for this pass to be executed.
However, LA just doesn’t execute.
To be fair, Voynov and Lewis should share blame for this botched play – Voynov should’ve led Lewis with the pass instead of putting it in his feet, while Lewis still should’ve still had plenty of time and space to handle the sub-par pass and get it out of the Kings zone.
But, both Kings don’t execute, and the puck ricochets off Lewis’ stick to Hannan, who safely fires the puck back in the zone to allow for another Sharks volley in the offensive zone.
Less than 10 seconds later, the puck is the net and the game is over.
The botched breakout pass wasn’t the only Kings miscue that led to Marleau’s winner.
Seconds earlier, when the Kings had the puck in the Sharks zone, LA goes offside and Tyler Toffoli is slow to tag up on the delayed offside. Toffoli being slow to tag up prevents the Kings from going back into the zone on the forecheck, which is what lets the Sharks advance the puck into the offensive zone to begin with.
So, had Toffoli tagged up quicker, Voynov and Lewis may never had the opportunity to mess up the breakout pass.
Not major mistakes. Except in playoff overtimes, mistakes don’t need to be major to decide the outcome of a game.
Patrick’s Playoff Prowess
- Marleau’s goal was his fourth career playoff overtime goal, tying him with Jaromir Jagr for second most all-time. Only Hall of Famer Joe Sakic (8) has ever scored more.
- Marleau’s overtime-winner was his 60th career playoff goal. He has now scored more playoff goals than any NHL player since he entered the League in the fall of 1997. Among active players, only Jagr (78) has more career playoff goals.
Niemi’s Unsung Performance
With the Sharks having hung 17 goals on the Kings in three games, Antti Niemi hasn’t really been forced to be spectacular for San Jose to be up 3-0 in the series.
And with a 2.58 goals-against average and .912 save percentage, Niemi has been solid, but hardly spectacular in the series.
However, the importance of his five overtime saves in Game 3 cannot be overstated, as the ice was firmly slanted in the Kings’ favor early in the extra session.
And numbers aside, if Niemi hadn’t come up with those particular five saves when the Sharks needed them, this would be a 2-1 series, rather than 3-0 -- only the 1942 Maple Leafs, 1975 Islanders and 2010 Flyers have ever come back to win a best-of-seven series after they trailed 3-0, and it’s never happened in the playoffs’ opening round.
Yet, Niemi turned aside all five of LA’s shots, while Quick couldn’t get the first San Jose overtime shot.
Most Playoff Wins Since 2010
Antti Niemi: 32
Jonathan Quick: 29
Tuukka Rask: 23
Roberto Luongo: 21
Jimmy Howard: 21
Henrik Lundqvist: 19
The conclusion of Game 3 may overshadow the Sharks’ third period, when they outshot the Kings 23-8 – the largest shots margin of any period in the series.
For the game, Tomas Hertl was second on the Sharks with six shots on goal, including his third-period goal where he tied the game, 3-3, by battling through the checks of both Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
Hertl’s goal came 8:26 after Carter scored to give LA the lead, while fellow San Jose rookie Matt Nieto’s second-period goal tied the game, 2-2, only 1:18 after Marian Gaborik’s first of the playoffs gave the Kings the lead.
Besides the obvious impact of quickly eliminating Kings leads, Hertl and Nieto became the first Sharks since Douglas Murray to score goals in their first career road playoff games.
Murray did so in Game 3 of San Jose’s opening round series against Calgary in 2008, when former Shark Owen Nolan netted the game-winner in a 4-3 Flames victory.
Almost everybody who has tried playing hockey in the post Mighty Ducks movies era, at one point or another, has experimented by shooting a knuckle puck, just to see what happens.
As anyone who has tried it can tell you, it never works as well as it did for Russ Tyler (played by Kenan Thompson) in the movie – usually, when attempting a knuckle puck, the puck flies uncontrollably over the net and maybe even over the glass, never picking up the velocity that a flat puck gains when shot.
The laws of physics don’t apply to Brent Burns, who a la Russ Tyler, opened Game 3’s scoring with a bona fide knuckle puck.
Okay, Burns’ knuckle puck didn’t look as pretty as the one in the movie. But, knowing Brent, it’s hard to expect that he’d want it any other way.
Speaking of Ugly
As expected, the Sharks and Kings have had the most physical series in the entire playoffs so far.
But, did anybody think it would be “this much” more physical?
Total Playoff Hits Entering Wednesday
Blue Jackets/Penguins: 251
Canadiens/Lightning (four games): 236
Bruins/ Red Wings: 179
The Sharks’ leader in hits in Game 3? Tommy Wingels, with nine.