The beast has risen.
No, not Ryan Kesler. As far as I'm aware, he's still on a golf course somewhere in scenic British Columbia. The beast that made its first real appearance of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs tonight was a collective one: the Los Angeles Kings. Despite ousting the St. Louis Blues in round one and notching two wins against San Jose to kick off the Western Conference Semifinals, the Kings hadn't quite resembled the puck-hounding, physically punishing juggernaut they comprised last spring.
That is, until tonight. Perhaps it was head coach Darryl Sutter's shrewd decision-making that included spreading out the Kings' offense by moving Dustin Brown down to the third line, placing Dustin Penner alongside the struggling Mike Richards and Jeff Carter and frequently manufacturing what turned out to be the very favorable matchup of Anze Kopitar skating against Matt Irwin and Dan Boyle. Perhaps it was that the Sharks really did empty their tank at the Tank, eking out a pair of 2-1 wins that were far more impressive, and presumably exhausting, efforts by San Jose than the scoreboard indicated. Or perhaps the first five games of this series just represent the most likely course of events when two teams that have been dominant at home and terrible on the road all year collide.
Whatever the reason, the defending champions looked the part on Thursday night at Staples Center for the first time in this series, bottling up the neutral zone, boasting a blistering forecheck and owning territorial play as if the calendar was still turned to May 2012. And when they finally took their foot off the gas after building a 2-0 third period lead on goals by Anze Kopitar and Slava Voynov, their Conn Smythe winning goaltender Jonathan Quick was there to deny quality opportunities by Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski.
Now the Sharks find themselves on the brink of elimination coming off easily their worst performance of the 2013 playoffs. But despite being taken out behind the woodshed for the first two periods of this one, there are positives they can draw heading into Game 6 (as if they have any other choice). Joe Thornton was tremendous once again, a man on a mission in the third period when he had a hand in generating four Sharks scoring chances, including two with Antti Niemi pulled for an extra attacker. Even while seeing a good deal of Anze Kopitar whenever Sutter failed to get him out against Irwin and Boyle, the Marc-Edouard Vlasic/Justin Braun pairing continued their strong postseason with another understated but excellent outing, the only tandem on the blueline to consistently neutralize the Kings and turn play the right way at even-strength.
But with Martin Havlat still injured and Raffi Torres still suspended, the Sharks just don't have a bottom six they can trust. That's an issue in battles of attrition like the one this series has become. It's painfully ironic that forward depth, arguably the Sharks' biggest issue over the past two seasons, is having a hand in their undoing after the team appeared to have solved the problem by the 2013 trade deadline. But so it goes in the playoffs, where it's usually just as important to be lucky by managing to stay healthy and un-suspended as it is to be good.
Of course there wasn't much that was lucky about the Kings' Game 5 win. San Jose was flat-out outplayed right up until the point when it was officially too late. If they can't find a way to both counter Los Angeles' forecheck and beat Jonathan Quick by Sunday night, a season that appeared to have the potential for a storybook ending just a couple of hours ago will instead turn into a familiar tale of heartbreak and defeat.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Anze Kopitar
2nd Star: Jonathan Quick
3rd Star: Antti Niemi