If there is one way that a team should try to avoid beginning a playoff series, then the Los Angeles Kings likely found it on Thursday night as they got off to a hideously sluggish start in a 6-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks.
The Kings ultimately gave up three goals in the first period and two more in the second before staging a rally in the late stages of the game, but it wasn’t enough as the Sharks drew first blood in a series between two of the game’s fiercest rivals.
In the first period of the game, the Kings started out poorly on offense and didn’t look much better on the defensive side of things either. On the first goal of the game, several Kings defenders ended up mesmerized by the puck as Brent Burns carried it along the end boards. Even Jonathan Quick was caught napping a bit, as Burns’ pass to Joe Pavelski in front of the net didn’t cause the Kings netminder to even turn his head. Pavelski’s slow shot ended up being deflected by Joe Thornton, and just three minutes into the game the Kings trailed.
The defense seemed to settle down a bit after that goal, but the offense was still slow to get going. Whether it was shots from the point or quick snap shots on the rush, the Kings couldn’t get any sustained pressure and looked very much like the team that finished 26th in the league in scoring this season. Meanwhile, the Sharks simply allowed the pressure to go up the sides of the ice, collapsing on the middle and preventing rebounds and cross-ice passes that would have opened up the game a bit more for the Kings.
Just before the end of the first period, the Kings ended up surrendering two more tallies. Tomas Hertl, who was making his postseason debut, ended up picking up the goal after a weird sequence. Both Kings defenders jumped over to cover James Sheppard on the rush, but his shot attempt skipped off his stick. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, Quick was sliding over to cover the shot, and when it veered off, he couldn’t adjust as Hertl popped the puck into the wide open net to make it a 2-0 game.
With only three seconds left in the period, the Sharks scored again. This time, they got a 2-on-1 rush following a Kings turnover, and Matt Nieto’s pass across to Patrick Marleau was perfectly timed as Quick had absolutely no chance to stop the shot that made the game 3-0.
As bad as that first period was, the third period gave Kings fans some reasons for optimism as the series moves forward. Early in the frame, Anze Kopitar made a nifty steal of the puck at the offensive blue line to keep possession going for the Kings, then fed a pass to Jake Muzzin. The defenseman’s shot found its way through traffic (helpfully provided by Justin Williams in front of the net), and was a good reward for a smart play by Kopitar and a quick shot by Muzzin.
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A tremendous individual play by Slava Voynov cut the Sharks lead to three just five minutes later. Under heavy duress from Sheppard, Voynov deked around him and drove in towards the net. Jarret Stoll provided the netfront traffic in front of Niemi, and the goaltender couldn’t react as Voynov’s sharp wrister found the back of the net.
With about six minutes remaining in the game, the Kings used traffic in front of the net and patient skating by their forwards to score again. This time, it was Jeff Carter pulling a spin move after he entered the zone, and both Trevor Lewis and Dustin Brown got to the top of the crease. Brad Stuart helplessly tried to stop both players, but he couldn’t control either man as the shot from Carter deflected off Lewis’ skate and into the net to make it a 5-3 game.
No, the three goals the Kings scored in the third period didn’t ultimately help them to win the game, but they did show them the recipe that it’s going to take to compete with the free-wheeling Sharks. The Kings will not win if the series becomes one giant track meet, but if they can get traffic in front of Niemi and can establish some patient play with the puck, then they are going to get their fair share of scoring opportunities. For a team that averaged just 2.4 goals per game during the regular season, that is a big deal, and could ultimately prove to be one of the deciding factors in this series.