It had all looked so easy.
Almost too easy.
In fact, it was almost stunning, even to their most ardent supporters, to witness the extremely wide margin that the Sharks outskated, outscored and out-executed the Kings by during the series’ first three games.
Well, with the Kings having emphatically leaped off the canvas by skating to a 6-3 win in Game 4, the Sharks’ opening-round series doesn’t look so easy any more.
Now it looks like the Sharks are in a war.
Sure, San Jose still has a commanding 3-1 series lead. And, of course, the Sharks were able to achieve their objective of splitting the series’ two games at Staples Center, giving themselves the chance to eliminate their archrivals for what would still be a very tidy five-game victory, merely by winning at home on Saturday night.
Heck, the Sharks have even given themselves the luxury of possibly having two chances of knocking the Kings out at home.
So, in that sense, it’s hardly panic time for the Sharks, who still firmly remain in the catbird seat in the series, even after their disappointing Game 4 defeat.
That being said, for the Sharks to put their first playoff loss behind them, they’ll have to take all the good they’ve accomplished so far in the series, improve on some of the things they did badly in Game 4 and prepare for a Game 5 that could even get a bit ugly.
In spite of squandering its first opportunity to eliminate LA, San Jose still has a lot of good things going for it to be optimistic about.
After all, with the Sharks still leading their series 3-1, and all three other Western Conference series deadlocked 2-2, San Jose is in the most favorable position in the conference.
Their advantageous 3-1 series standing is not the only positive thing the Sharks can take away from Game 4.
The Sharks Carried The Play
In spite of the final score, the Sharks posted their best single-game possession numbers of the series in Game 4.
Of course, on any given night, posting favorable Corsi and Fenwick team stats – the names of the two advanced stats that are considered the best measurement of puck possession – doesn’t necessarily equate to wins. A hot goalie, bounces and the quality of scoring chances don’t have anything to do with determining puck possession numbers, yet most certainly are very important factors when deciding hockey games.
However, the idea behind puck possession stats is that they can help predict long-term success, based around the reasonable premise that teams that continually possess the puck more have better chances of winning games against opponents who possess the puck less.
And despite the final score, the Sharks were still Game 4’s better puck possession team by a broad margin, which is something they have been for most of this series so far.
San Jose’s Offense Still Made A Mark
When a team starts a series by scoring six goals, seven goals and four goals, netting three in a game might seem to be a letdown.
However, when you factor in that the opponent, the Kings, led the NHL with a 2.05 goals-against average during the regular season and held you to fewer than three goals in six of seven playoff games last season, scoring three goals like the Sharks did in Game 4 still makes it evident that LA’s vaunted defense is a bit “off.”
So, with the Sharks exhibiting a sturdy 39-31 shots advantage and symmetrically scoring once in all three periods in Game 4, San Jose’s offense doesn’t appear to have slowed down, nor does Jonathan Quick seem to be playing his best hockey yet.
Did You Know?
Including overtime of Game 3, there have been 13 periods played so far in the series. The Sharks have scored goals in 12 of them, with the first period of Game 2 being the only period in the series where San Jose did not score.
Everybody Is Scoring
When James Sheppard scored the Sharks’ first goal in Game 4, he became the fifth San Jose player to score his first career playoff goal in this series – Justin Braun, Mike Brown, Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto being the others.
In total, Sheppard was the 12th different Shark to score a goal in the series, which is decidedly more than any other playoff team.
Players With At Least One Playoff Goal
The Big Guns Are REALLY Scoring
If when the playoffs started, you said that Patrick Marleau would be tied for second in both NHL playoff goal-scoring (3) and points (7) through four games, or that Joe Pavelski would be averaging 1.5 points per game, not many Sharks fans would be that surprised.
However, just behind Marleau and Pavelski, the Sharks have been bolstered by a breakout playoff performance from rookie Matt Nieto (2g, 3a), who scored for the second straight game in Game 4 and is also averaging better than a point per game in the series.
Nieto’s performance doesn’t only give the Sharks another top-level scoring threat. It also makes the California native the first player in San Jose franchise history to tally goals in each of his first two career road playoff games.
If you outshoot your opponent, do offensive damage, dominate the puck-possession battles and still lose, there is clearly something else that went wrong.
A knee-jerk reaction might be to blame the goalie, Antti Niemi, who uncharacteristically gave up five goals on 26 shots, prior to being removed from the game in favor of Alex Stalock during the third period.
However, following Game 4, Sharks head coach Todd McLellan was adamant that Niemi didn’t deserve the blame.
“I didn’t like our net play,” said McLellan. “Simple as that.
“When I say ‘net play’, I don’t mean our goaltender. I better make that real clear. I’m talking about the goaltender, the d-men and the forwards down low, and secondary chances we gave up. I’m definitely not talking about one individual with pads on.”
Of the Kings’ five goals – totally removing Dustin Brown’s empty netter from the equation – three came on missed assignments. The exceptions were LA’s second and third goals, both scored by Justin Williams – one came on the power play with the Kings using their numbers advantage to convert off a rush, and the other got batted into the net out of mid-air off a peculiar bounce off the end boards.
What Assignments Were Missed
Kings first goal, scored by Marian Gaborik: After Dustin Brown begins the play by skating the puck out of his own zone, he is able to elude Logan Couture’s check in the neutral zone. By doing so, Brown is able to carry the puck into the Sharks zone as part of a 3-on-2, with the Kings parlaying their odd-man rush into a goal.
Kings fourth goal, scored by Tyler Toffoli: Alec Martinez takes a shot from the right point that Andrew Desjardins attempts to glove down. However, the puck flutters and Desjardins doesn’t get a clean grip, with the puck bouncing a few feet away from him instead of landing at his feet. In the split second it takes him to recover, Toffoli is Johnny on the Spot to rifle a shot past Niemi from point-blank range.
Kings fifth goal, scored by Marian Gaborik: As much as anything, Gaborik’s second goal of the game was facilitated by a magnificent forecheck from Anze Kopitar, who is able to out-duel a pair of Sharks for a loose puck in the corner. With two Sharks being drawn to Kopitar and the three other San Jose skaters covering their men, Gaborik is left alone in the slot. Once Kopitar fights through his double-team, he is easily able to slide the puck to a wide-open Gaborik, who has a ton of time in the slot to pick a corner.
The glass half empty viewpoint of these missed assignments is that they were plays the Sharks usually make, which could’ve been the difference between a loss and a win in Game 4.
The glass half full portion is that the Sharks “do” usually make these plays, that San Jose mostly played well enough to win Game 4 and may have done so if it were not for a few missed assignments – sorts of mistakes that the team rarely makes, from individuals who are pretty safe bets to be defensively responsible players on a regular basis.
With the outcome of the game no longer in doubt during the final minute of the third period, a handful of Sharks expressed their own version of Tomas Hertl’s now-famous “I no much like LA” quote.
Before the dust settled, Braun dropped the gloves with Williams in an all-Justins bout. Then, in a battle of heavyweights, Brent Burns squared off with Robyn Regehr after the game’s final buzzer.
Including the four fighting majors, nine penalties were assessed in the game’s final 24 seconds.
“Our team has a lot of grit, and a lot of fight,” said Joe Pavelski. “We knew that about the guys here, but it’s definitely good to see.”
Seeing the increasing level of dislike between the Sharks and Kings is also definitely a sign that Saturday night’s Game 5 at the Shark Tank will be a real dandy.