So it comes down to this. One game–one nail-biting, bloodcurdling, vomit-inducing game–will decide whether the Sharks advance to the NHL's final four for the third time in four postseasons, with arguably their best chance yet to qualify for the franchise's first ever Stanley Cup Final, or if it's another second round exit for a core that's endured several of those and isn't getting any younger.
It seems entirely futile to discuss what the Sharks need to do tonight to escape Southern California with their playoff lives intact. Scoring more goals than the Kings score would certainly be a start but the bounces reign supreme over just sixty minutes of hockey. The tired adage that anything can happen in a Game 7 is true because anything can happen in a single game; a third-liner on an expansion team can slay the best team in hockey, Roman Turek can duck a shot from center ice, Jeremy Roenick can either singlehandedly power or convince himself he motivated someone else to singlehandedly power the Sharks to victory. Regardless, here are a couple of things the Sharks will need in order to win their first road game of this series.
1. Even-strength scoring
Heading into Game 7, the Sharks have scored just five even-strength goals in this series (one of which came seconds after the expiration of a power play, another on a delayed penalty). Generating offense five-on-five has been an issue for this team all season, particularly during their dreadful February swoon, but it can't be an issue tonight. It isn't exactly a secret that officials tend to be a bit more conservative with their whistles during these types of games but even if the stripes buck a trend, it's entirely possible it won't be of much benefit to the Sharks. Despite living off their phenomenal power play at the Tank throughout these playoffs, San Jose has struggled to convert opportunities on the road to the tune of just one goal in nineteen attempts.
It's difficult to see that changing tonight given the way in which the Kings have thoroughly handled the Sharks' power play since the start of Game 4. Over that span, San Jose has 11 shots on goal in 19:44 of time with a 5v4 man-advantage, a shot rate which averages to just 33 shots per 60 5v4 minutes, lower than even the worst power play in the league managed during the regular season. Small sample caveats apply but the Kings have been noticeably more aggressive in denying the Sharks their favored power play zone entries, forcing dump-ins and converging on the puck-carrier during the occasions on which San Jose has had offensive-zone possession. They've figured out the Sharks' power play, now it's the Sharks' turn to figure out Jonathan Quick at even-strength.
2. A better third line
Scott Gomez, set to play in his tenth career Game 7, had some succinct advice for his teammates earlier today: "Don't suck." Unfortunately, if anyone in teal has sucked in this series, it's been Gomez and his linemates James Sheppard and Tommy Wingels. Cobbled together as a third line after Raffi Torres' suspension meant shifting Joe Pavelski up to the top unit, Gomez and company had a great Game 2 in which they helped generate two of the Sharks' three goals. They've been obliterated at even-strength since then, playing primarily against the Trevor Lewis line yet still managing to get buried in terms of shots and chances.
With Gomez on the ice 5v5 in this series, the Sharks have earned just 36.4% of all unblocked shots. While this group doesn't necessarily need to provide offense, they need to at the very least be able to play the Kings' third line to a draw territorially to avoid getting outscored tonight. Each of them are above-average puck possession players individually which makes their struggles in this series all the more confusing. If they can make it through this one game, Torres' suspension will be over and the Sharks can go back to icing a competent third line centered by Pavelski. San Jose needs Sheppard, Gomez and Wingels to perform their best impersonation of a competent third line tonight.
The last time the Sharks played a Game 7 on the road, Teemu Selanne missed an open net on a wraparound, sealing the team's fate in a 1-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. A play like that could very well determine who moves on and who goes home tonight and it goes without saying that the Sharks need to hope the hockey gods smile upon them. Whether it's a flukey bounce, a questionable penalty call or Jonathan Quick reverting to regular season form for a night, something needs to swing in the Sharks' favor for them to win this game. As closely matched as these teams are, L.A. has been a dominant home club all season and are clearly the favorites to eke this series out. It will take a signature sixty-minute effort in addition to some good fortune for the Sharks to prevent that from happening.
Projected Sharks Lineup
Projected Kings Lineup