It seems only yesterday when the horn signaling the beginning of the third period sounded like a march to the gallows. The Sharks' struggles in the final frame, indisputable. The Sharks' failures in the final frame, frustrating beyond belief.
Somewhere along the line in February, things changed. The Sharks' didn't just start putting teams away when they had the lead, they started mounting impressive comebacks in the dying seconds as well. And although it's hard to pinpoint the game where it all started, it's easy to find the man who is largely responsible for it all.
Patrick Marleau. The king of the late game heroics.
With 3:30 left in the third, and the Sharks needing a goal, here comes Patrick Marleau down the wing with the puck on his stick. Wrist shot, twine, tie game. With 0:03 left in the third, and the Sharks needing yet another goal, here comes Patrick Marleau in front of the net looking for the puck on his stick. Loose puck, roofed it, tie game.
Although San Jose would go on to lose in the shootout tonight (and, if you're counting score according to karma points, likely deserved to lose considering the uninspired first forty minutes of the game), it's a good sign to see the team plugging it out until the bitter end on a nightly basis right now. There's not a whole lot of quit in this team, something you'd be hard pressed to say in previous years, and that's a great sign to see in late March.
The first period was a workmanlike effort for both teams. San Jose nearly struck early on, as a 2 on 1 centering pass from Patrick Marleau barely slid past Devin Setoguchi's outreached stick, but Los Angeles would go on to control the play for the majority of the period and were outshooting the Sharks 11-3 at one point. Niemi was up to the task, making some quality saves including a pair during the Kings first power play. The only real saving grace for San Jose was the fact that they would pick up a power play with twenty eight seconds remaining in the period after Jason Demers was slashed in the neutral zone.
The Sharks would use that to their advantage early in the second. Joe Pavelski would continue to put the finishing touches on an excellent month of hockey with a nice deflection that beat Kings' goaltender Jonathan Quick during the power play, giving the Sharks a 1-0 lead.
That burst of momentum was short lived however, as the Kings would continue to dominate San Jose in nearly every facet of the game. They controlled the Sharks in the defensive zone, pressuring the puck carrier and keeping San Jose's shooters to the outside. They clogged the neutral zone and hounded the Sharks along the boards. There wasn't an inch of open ice out there, and if there was, the Kings closed the gap and made sure that inch was gone in an instant. It all paid off for L.A. as both Dustin Brown and Willie Mitchell would score goals in the second frame to give the Kings a 2-1 lead heading into the third period.
From the opening shift San Jose was clearly engaged in the play, drawing a penalty right out of the gate. The Wellwood-Pavelski-Mitchell line continued their brilliance from the last two weeks, looking dangerous on the majority of their shifts and getting the tap from Head Coach Todd McLellan following nearly every television timeout. And while it took over sixteen minutes to get the equalizer for San Jose, it wasn't due to a lack of effort-- Jonathan Quick stood on his head, with a nice toe save on Joe Pavelski standing out as one of his finer moments.
The only blemish of that period would have to be Joe Thornton's interference penalty with 2:55 left in the game. If there's three things a Coach doesn't want to see discipline wise, it is this-- 1) a penalty from your Captain/best player during a crucial moment of the game 2) a penalty late in the game when the score is tied and 3) a penalty in the offensive zone. Putting all three together is a recipe for disaster in the postseason. Even though we saw Marleau light the lamp in the dying seconds (huge credit goes to Pavelski for winning that draw), two games now have seen two of San Jose's best players (Dany Heatley against Dallas, Thornton tonight) take some ill-advised penalties at inopportune times.
What did the Sharks do well tonight? Nothing, really, at least for the the first forty minutes. It's going to be a hard road winning postseason games if they come out of the gate like they did tonight. But those last twenty minutes? That is what grabbed my attention the most and (hopefully) indicates what kind of resolve the Sharks will show down the stretch. It's a pattern that has become, much to my pleasant surprise, something that is far different than the trends exhibited at the beginning of the year.
Seven games left. A playoff appearance right around the corner. A road that isn't getting any easier.
But one that is getting more and more exciting with each and every turn.