This was billed as the most grueling, competitive series of the first round so perhaps it's only fitting that the Sharks failed to complete their sweep of the Kings in Los Angeles tonight. Despite dictating play for the majority of the game, some sloppy defensive errors and a couple of unsavory goals allowed by Antti Niemi sealed San Jose's fate in Game 4 and forces a fifth game of the series on Saturday in the Bay Area.
In many respects, the Sharks were better tonight than they were in their 4-3 overtime win on Tuesday. They rarely allowed the Kings to establish their forecheck and were on offense for lengthy stretches of the game, including almost the entire first period at even-strength. The bounces were uncooperative and Niemi struggled but if the Sharks play like they did tonight on Saturday, they'll have a good chance to close this thing out in five.
After trading goals through the midway mark of the second period, Justin Williams deflected a rebound off the end-boards past Antti Niemi to give him his second goal of the night and the Kings their third lead, this time one they wouldn't relinquish. A goal by Tyler Toffoli in the final minute of the middle frame off an aborted shot-block by Andrew Desjardins staked L.A. to a two-goal lead that they extended to three seconds into the third after Marian Gaborik was the beneficiary of Brad Stuart failing to handle the puck on a Justin Braun reverse. That was enough to chase Stalock from the net and give the Kings another day to live.
Granted, San Jose was still able to make things at least somewhat interesting. Joe Pavelski would score on a power play in the third period, and the Sharks had plenty of chances to pull closer but Logan Couture couldn't capitalize on a partial break, Patrick Marleau's stick was trapped by Mike Richards which prevented him from getting to a Marc-Edouard Vlasic rebound and Raffi Torres missed an open net after the Sharks pulled Alex Stalock for an extra attacker.
This team's core players have all been in this situation--winning three straight before losing Game 4--before in recent history, against the Red Wings in both 2010 and 2011. The first time they were able to rebound from a blowout Game 4 loss to end the series in five. The second time, well...let's not go there. And let's hope the Sharks don't either.
- I have no idea why Todd McLellan got away from the line combinations that were successful for him in Games 2 and 3. Brent Burns, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski had a fine start to the game but struggled mightily to generate anything in the way of quality scoring opportunities afterward. Tomas Hertl was terrific on that line in Game 3; I'm not sure why he needed to be demoted.
- Hertl still managed to make an impact on the third line with a dominant shift that led to James Sheppard's tying goal in the dying seconds of the first period. On the ice against the Kings' top line, he controlled play down low, spun at the goal line, fired the puck at the net, recovered it and then set up Scott Hannan for a one-timer that Sheppard was able to cash in on the rebound. Wasting his talent on that third line is just another reason I don't fully understand the switch.
- Neither goaltender had a great performance but Niemi was especially bad. Coughing up a rebound into the slot from a zero-angle Dustin Brown shot on the Marian Gaborik goal just isn't good enough, and neither is failing to squeeze the pads on Justin Williams' first goal from the half-wall. San Jose played well enough to win this game but Niemi did not. He needs to be better in Game 5.
- Jonathan Quick was coughing up rebounds all over the place and it's a shame the Sharks weren't able to take advantage of it more often. He came through with several great saves in the third period and probably had his best game of the series (granted, that's a low bar to clear at this point) but there were plenty of opportunities for San Jose to make him pay for his poor rebound control in the second.
- What else can you say about Matt Nieto? He was once again a consistent force driving play forward despite being deployed in the toughest of situations by the coaching staff; Nieto, Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau started 6 shifts in the defensive zone and just 2 in the attacking end of the rink. He deposited a great goal to tie the score in the second and continues to be one of the biggest surprises of this series, as well as one of its best players.
- The fourth line was horrendous. They were outshot by a significant margin, were on the ice for the back-breaking Tyler Toffoli goal in the final minute of the second period and an idiotic boarding penalty by Raffi Torres led to the power play that gave the Kings a 2-1 lead. There's pretty much no chance Tyler Kennedy gets into a game in this series but he should.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Justin Williams
2nd Star: Marian Gaborik
3rd Star: Anze Kopitar