James Sheppard's biggest goal ever as a San Jose Shark was the deflection of a Slava Voynov shot past Antti Niemi five minutes into the second period tonight to give the Los Angeles Kings a 2-1 lead. The tally held up as the game-winner and will send the Sharks up north to Vancouver to open the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs early next week.
A lackadaisical, nearly penalty-free affair in which the Kings carried the majority of the play but neither team seemed to be all that concerned with the result ended 3-2 in favor of Los Angeles as the clubs traded third period goals from Justin Williams and T.J. Galiardi.
But enough about this game. As much as the Scott Hannan/Brad Stuart pairing returning after a one-game respite elicited frustration and hilarious sight gags like the camera repeatedly panning right in anticipation of Hannan breakout passes that never materialized, hopefully their reunion was part of swallowing the bitter but necessary pill that was this loss.
Because while the Canucks and Blues are both legitimate Cup contenders, a Vancouver team featuring a banged-up defense, poor special teams and a weaker possession game and even-strength offense than previous seasons (not to mention a goalie who just gave up seven goals to the Oilers, has been mired in manufactured controversy all season and will likely be thrust back into the starting role for Game 1 with Cory Schneider reportedly more injured than many are letting on) is decidedly the more favorable matchup for San Jose. The Sharks got what they wanted, now it's a matter of execution.
And despite their aforementioned shortcomings, if that's even a fair word to describe them, the Canucks are still a hell of a team. Assuming Ryan Kesler and Derek Roy aren't deployed on the same line, Vancouver has center depth in Henrik Sedin, Kesler, Roy and Maxim Lapierre that rivals what the Sharks boast down the middle in Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Scott Gomez. Their top pairing of Dan Hamhuis and Jason Garrison is formidable and, despite the foreboding narrative, Roberto Luongo is one of the best goalies in NHL history. He's been to Game 7 of the Final, he's won a gold medal and he's more than capable of stealing a series. Of course, much of that applies to Antti Niemi as well. In a lot of ways, this series looks to be a coinflip. A compelling, suspenseful bloodbath of a coinflip but one that's inherently too close to call nonetheless. Above all, it should be a lot of fun. Stick around for plenty of coverage in the days leading up to the series. Go Sharks.