SAN JOSE—A moment rarely seen in the National Hockey came together for the fourth time in history. The Los Angeles Kings pulled off the biggest upset not made by many winning four consecutive games in a row embarrassing the San Jose Sharks 5-1 at SAP Center on Wednesday night. Two empty net goals in the final minutes of the third period set the Kings up to meet Anaheim in the Western conference semifinals.
With a miraculous three game comeback to tie the series in six games, game seven became a moment for one team’s chance at a familiar glory and another’s at choking in the postseason. Los Angeles needed to get out ahead in order to have any chance at pulling off an upset only three teams in history have done.
Mike Richards knew of the factors playing in the eyes of both squads and helped the Kings blast away at Antti Niemi who returned to the net after taking the night off from Game 6. The Sharks netminder made both stops by Richards which infuriated the Kings center. The period ended in a draw where San Jose outshot Los Angeles 14-9 through twenty minutes. The game play between the two was on an even strength pace with plenty of physical power being delivered to gain an edge.
The Sharks started the second with a power move that caught LA off the mark. On a pass play out front Tomas Hertl found teammate Matt Irwin near the blue line to receive the open pass. His shot flew over Kings Goaltender Jonathan Quick who was setting up for the low drive but miscalculated the opportunity allowing the Sharks to take the opening lead. The fight would grow in the Kings defense to overturn the puck possession in order to attack the Sharks net.
After four minutes of battling for the scoring chance a play was set up involving Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter where the Kings second line center battled the puck near the crease making a pass back to Doughty who alone in back to fire a wrist shot tying the game at one. It was his first of the playoffs and the one that would count to make a statement that they were now in it.
The Kings dug in as the Sharks went back to sending shots on Quick who made the big saves when necessary. On a scoring chance from Patrick Marleau on the far glove side of the net, Quick stretched out in time to pull off an amazing glove save that had to be checked by officials. The Kings reliance on Quick was one to be lucky about after having dealt out three consecutive power plays to San Jose.
With the game back to even strength, and time running out in the second, LA went for a brilliant two man lay with Justin Williams taking point. On a rush into the Sharks end, Williams laid back the puck to Anze Kopitar who patiently skated towards the net and backhanded the puck high on the slot to give the Kings the game’s final change of lead. The crowd came to a standstill in shock as the reality of defeat was beginning to grow in an arena that has been a nightmare for other teams and yet was not working against their biggest rivals in the NHL.
Things only got better for the Kings who seemed to have a grip on the Sharks hearts and minds as the same play that LA pulled off in the second occurred once more. Tanner Pearson began the rush into the Sharks end where after leading off Sharks defenseman found Tyler Toffoli behind to circle towards Niemi to go top shelf on the glove side making it 3-1. ”I just chipped it to pears and saw him going wide and I was yelling as loud as I could to pass it back to me and made a nice play to me and shot it high glove,” Toffoli said. The rookies combined for a goal, four assists and five points combined. “Those kids are playing tremendous for us and seem to be getting more responsibility every game so that’s awesome to see for us, said Williams.
The remainder of the period saw the Sharks battling as they pulled out all the stops and fired at the Kings net. Quick and the Los Angeles defense performed extravagantly in their end letting time slip by and loose pucks clear out.
With only one chance left, Coach Todd McClellan pulled Niemi from the ice for the sixth attacker with 2:49 left on the clock. It only caused further pain as Kopitar stole the puck on the low end clearing it into the Sharks end where Captain Dustin Brown gained possession and scored on the empty net. Now a 4-1 game the Kings were assured victory but the fun wasn’t gone as Pearson got on the board with a goal in the final minute scoring his first of the playoffs and the one for good measure.
The devastation of the Sharks left them to be a team completely dumbfounded by their handling of closing out the series. While Niemi took the brute of the damage making 25 saves. The team combined for blocking 16 shots, the lowest since the comeback began. “When I look at it I think they fixed their problems…we didn’t,” said Coach McClellan. “Our problems got progressively worse. We were awful off the rush and we tried to stress that and were never able to fix it.”
A complete decimation of the Sharks showed that the NHL, anything is possible. “It’ll never compare to winning the Stanley Cup but its right there with it with this feeling,” said Doughty who scored the Kings first goal. The Kings join a small group of teams who pulled off the same feat. The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, the New York Islanders of 1975 and the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010 all came back from 0-3 in the series to win. “Its not how we wanted to start the series and coming back is obviously good and I don’t think we want to do that again,” said Toffoli.
Only the 42’ Leafs have gone on to win the Stanley Cup and with the Kings pulling off another gigantic feat, only time will tell what this team can produce hereafter. Los Angeles will start the second round on Saturday night in their first playoff meeting with the Ducks.