It isn't a game between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings unless it ends in a one-goal victory for the home team. Tonight's contest between two of the best clubs in the Western Conference stuck to that familiar script, with Anze Kopitar pounding a one-timer from the high slot past Antti Niemi on a 4-on-3 power play in overtime to send the Sharks home to San Jose on a sour note following a 3-1-1 road trip.
For a brief moment, it looked like the Sharks would have an easy go of it against the club that knocked them out of the postseason five months ago. Logan Couture outmuscled Kopitar to a puck on the right wing half-wall inside the Kings zone before setting up Marc-Edouard Vlasic for a goal just thirteen seconds in, marking the fifth time this season the Sharks have opened the scoring in a game's first minute. But the lead was short-lived as Drew Doughty answered for Los Angeles a little over two minutes later and the Kings subsequently carried play for much of the remainder of the game, save for stretches in the second period.
Despite playing last night in Phoenix, the Kings didn't look like a tired team and certainly didn't play like one, particularly as they attempted to tie the game in the third. They were characteristically relentless on the forecheck as their top six, led as always by Kopitar who was fantastic after his early blunder on the Vlasic goal, hemmed their Sharks counterparts in the San Jose end and ground down the Sharks' blueline until there was little left over the final twenty minutes. It all starts with clean breakouts and while the Sharks struggled in that area for much of the night, Darryl Sutter's wise reunion of the lethal Jake Muzzin/Drew Doughty pairing paid off for L.A. The Kings were also flat-out dominant in the faceoff circle, winning nearly 63% of the draws in this game.
But what tends to leave a bitter taste is that the Sharks made a ton of unforced errors that allowed Los Angeles to tie the score on three separate occasions before netting the overtime winner. A questionable no-look backhand pass from behind his own goal line by Matt Irwin led directly to the Doughty goal. A series of bad decisions with the puck in their own end by the fourth line, who really didn't deserve to receive upwards of ten minutes tonight, resulted in Jarret Stoll deflecting a Slava Voynov shot past Niemi three minutes into the middle frame. And then there were the penalties. Earning two separate bench minors for having too many men on the ice in the same game is a rare feat, and the second of those calls allowed Justin Williams to tie the contest.
Ultimately, the Sharks looked like a team missing an elite two-way defenseman, a top-line power forward and a speedy top-nine winger. Which is exactly the team they are with Dan Boyle, Brent Burns and Matt Nieto still out. The rest of the club remains good enough to hang with elite clubs like L.A. but San Jose won't be able to dominate great teams like it did earlier in the year until those players return. The fact that they managed to claim seven out of a possible ten points on this five-game trip with Boyle and Burns playing zero minutes of it is a victory in and of itself, even if this last matchup ended in a loss.
- In his first game back, Martin Havlat mostly looked like a player who probably isn't 100% healthy and didn't have a training camp or exhibition season as a tune-up but he did make several nice plays, including a terrific outlet pass to Tommy Wingels. He was also a positive contributor to the power play's second unit, spelling Tyler Kennedy who had been largely useless in that role. I don't think we'll see dividends here for a few more games but hopefully, once he gets back into game shape, Havlat will find his way back onto the Couture line.
- I hate to say it but Brad Stuart is turning into Douglas Murray right before our eyes. His comedy of errors to begin overtime, resulting directly in ten-bell chances for Dustin Brown and Mike Richards, were the most visible gaffes but he had a brutal time advancing the puck all game and has for the entirety of this trip. The coaching staff justifiably dismantled the Irwin/Stuart pairing early on tonight but the Hannan/Stuart tandem was predictably no better. Since he can't successfully pair with either of those players, and he struggled alongside Jason Demers late last season, where's the place for him in this lineup at even-strength when Dan Boyle returns? I'd make him a healthy scratch at that point but unfortunately it seems more likely Demers or Irwin will get the hook.
- To my eye, Kennedy had one of his worst games of the season with a couple of failed defensive zone exits that ended up costing the Sharks, one of which merited what looked like a stern lecture from Scott Hannan (which is rich, given that Hannan is no master of cleanly clearing the zone himself, but I digress).
- In terms of the ugly faceoff numbers, Joe Pavelski, the team's best faceoff man through twelve games, went just 31% in the circle including a 1-for-4 showing against Stoll. Logan Couture also clicked at just 25% against his most frequent opponent in Kopitar.
- What else is there to say about Marc-Edouard Vlasic? In a game in which the Sharks earned just 36.8% of the even-strength shot attempts, they earned 63.6% of them in the seventeen even-strength minutes for which Vlasic was on the ice. He also bailed out his partner Justin Braun late in the second period, thwarting a Kings 3-on-1 in tight with brilliant stick positioning. Oh, and there was that game-opening goal he scored too. Right now, Vlasic isn't just the team's best defenseman. He's their best player.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Drew Doughty
2nd Star: Anze Kopitar
3rd Star: Marc-Edouard Vlasic