Sharks are shook, Kings looking good

Deja vu.

In the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks went to Game 7, and they’re about to do it again in 2014.

Los Angeles trailed 3-0 in games in the first-round series against the Sharks. The Kings battled back, winning three straight to force Game 7, which will transpire Wednesday night in San Jose.

If the Kings win the seventh game they will become the fourth team in NHL history to completely erase a 3-0 series deficit. The 1942 Maple Leafs, 1975 Islanders and 2010 Flyers are the only other examples of NHL clubs winning a series they once trailed 3-0.

There’s a lot of external (and internal) pressure on the Sharks to avoid becoming the fourth team in league history to let a 3-0 series lead slip. Conversely, I think the Kings have a psychological advantage, and it shows.

San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan is obviously shaken by his team’s recent collapse. There were several camera shots of him throughout the late stages of Game 6, and in Game 5, all of which displayed the coach’s anger.

It appears, from the outside looking in, as though McLellan has lost his composure; he’s shook, as they say. And when a coach loses his wits, his team follows suit. Lack of composure trickles down.

McLellan started backup goaltender Alex Stalock last night over Stanley Cup champion and former Vezina Trophy finalist Antti Niemi. It was Stalock’s first ever postseason game. Niemi, by the way, won the Stanley Cup in 2010 as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Was it wise of McLellan to start his inexperienced backup in a crucial Game 6? Hindsight says, “no,” unless the move whipped Niemi into shape for the next game. If the Sharks win Game 7, we can’t really question the winning coach’s tactics can we?

Niemi was subpar between the pipes in Games 4 and 5, which presumably led to his temporary relief from starting duties. That being said, Niemi is a proven winner; maybe he deserved another chance to redeem himself in a high-pressure situation, on the road in Los Angeles.

A similar storyline played out identically in the first-round of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Vancouver Canucks had a 3-0 series lead over the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks won Games 4 and 5 to force a sixth. Then Canucks coach, Alain Vigneault, started backup Cory Schneider in Game 6 over usual starter Roberto Luongo. The Canucks lost the game in overtime. Luongo returned for Game 7 and backstopped an OT win that ended Chicago’s memorable comeback. The emotional roller-coaster propelled the Canucks to a Stanley Cup Final berth. They lost in seven against the Bruins.

So, who’s starting Game 7 for the San Jose Sharks? It’s got to be Niemi.

The Kings’ mental advantage is partly because the Sharks seem to be losing their composure, and partly a testament to the Kings’ resolve.

Los Angeles is two years removed from hoisting the Stanley Cup. As a group, they’ve won big games, thus, they have the confidence and mental wherewithal to win big games again. That’s the way it seems to work in the Stanley Cup playoffs. See: Blackhawks vs Blues.

If I were a betting man, which I am not, I’d believe in the Kings’ recent winning pedigree over the Sharks’ lengthy history of choking in the playoffs. San Jose has qualified for the postseason ten straight times and have yet played a game in the Stanley Cup Final. Something about them isn’t conducive to winning big games.

That being said, in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs the Sharks similarly let a 3-0 games lead slip against a recent champion — the Detroit Red Wings — but were able to salvage the series with a Game 7 win on home ice.

Over the years, Sharks captain Joe Thornton and franchise leading scorer Patrick Marleau have become synonymous with disappearing in Game 7s. Whereas, the Kings roster boasts a few Game 7 legends, Justin Williams being the most adept at producing the final blow.

Throughout his career, Thornton has recorded two points in four Game 7s. His team has won twice and lost twice. Surprisingly, the Sharks haven’t reached Game 7 often over the past decade despite always making the playoffs. They either bow out quickly or finish off an opponent before a seventh game is required.

Patrick Marleau’s Game 7 record is equally as unflattering as Thornton’s. Marleau has been involved in three Game 7s throughout his lengthy career. He’s scored one point, losing two-of-three winner-take-alls.

Conversely, Justin Williams of the Kings has saved his best work for Game 7 opportunities. Williams is undefeated in three career Game 7s, including a Stanley Cup Final win over the Edmonton Oilers in 2006. His stat line reads: 3 Game 7s played, 4 goals scored and 2 assists tallied, totalling 6 points.

The Sharks current leadership core has a propensity to struggle in Game 7. Doesn’t mean they won’t deliver tomorrow; only that we’ve come to expect them not to shine in Game 7. Whereas, Williams is one member of the Kings who is a proven Game 7 guy. And in the NHL, history does repeat itself.

It’s actually remarkable the Kings have even pushed the series to Game 7 considering how slow they looked in the first few games, when the Sharks had a clear speed advantage. Somewhere along the way the Kings adjusted and have managed to nullify the Sharks’ speed-game enough to win three straight and force a series-deciding Game 7.

Someone will play hero tomorrow night when the Kings and Sharks clash in Game 7 for the second straight postseason.

One year ago, it was Kings’ net minder Jonathan Quick who earned the most praise for a stellar 2-1 victory on home ice.

Sharks’ heart-and-soul, Logan Couture, was amazing in last year’s Game 7 against the Kings. He scored San Jose’s only goal and was an offensive catalyst for his team throughout the game. Had a few more Sharks played with as much life-or-death urgency as Couture that series may have ended differently. And I believe that’s how close the Sharks are: a great team that needs to throw caution to the wind and leave it all out there tomorrow night. If they can accomplish that, they’ll win.

An optimist would say that the Sharks are in a terrific position right now. They possess home ice advantage in Game 7. Should they win, their second-round opponent is the Anaheim Ducks, a team with less experience and as many question marks, if not more. And, after that the West could be wide open should the Blackhawks slip up in Round 2.

But if the Sharks lose, there could be significant change within the organization. Head coach Todd McLellan might lose his job; GM Doug Wilson may not be safe either. And on the ice: Goaltender Antti Niemi and others will surely be second-guessed as returnees for next season.

I guess you could say this is an important game for the San Jose Sharks franchise.