Just a few days ago, the Los Angeles Kings were left for dead, with people questioning whether or not the San Jose Sharks could finish off a sweep of the series after jumping out to a 3-0 lead.
For now though, the Kings are still alive, and they have a home game at the Staples Center to keep the series going on Monday night. In Game 4 of the series, the Kings exploded for three goals in the second period and six overall in the game, as key supporting players like Justin Williams and Marian Gaborik stepped up their games in a big way.
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In Game 5, the Kings went on the road and played arguably their best game of the series in an arena that they had struggled in during the first two games of the series. Scoring three early goals and cruising to a shutout victory over their rivals from northern California. Jonathan Quick stopped all 30 shots that he faced in the game, and Tyler Toffoli, Anze Kopitar, and Jeff Carter all scored goals as the Kings extended the series and brought it back to Los Angeles.
When the two teams battle again on Monday, there will be some changes to the Sharks that could change the complexion of the series. First and foremost among those is Todd McLellan's decision to start Alex Stalock in net over Antti Niemi, who has struggled mightily so far during the playoffs. Niemi gave up three goals on just 19 shots in just over 20 minutes in Game 5, and Stalock came in and made 22 saves over the remaining two periods of the game.
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Niemi, who came close to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy with the Blackhawks in 2010, isn't the only player who may not be on the ice when Game 6 begins on Monday. Marc Edouard Vlasic, the defenseman who has been one of the key contributors on the blue line for the Sharks throughout the series, was injured during the first period of Game 5, and he didn't practice either on Sunday or in the team's morning skate on Monday afternoon in Los Angeles. If he can't dress for the game, then the Sharks' already thin blue line will suffer a blow that will be difficult to overcome, and it will put even more pressure on Stalock.
With that in mind, the Kings' game plan for Monday's game should be clear. Just like they did in the first period of Game 5, and just like they did in the second period of Game 4, they need to get as many shots to the net as they can, and they need to crash with as much traffic as possible. Guys like Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar both did that with reckless abandon in earlier games in the series, and if they can affect Stalock's timing in the crease, then they could very well jump out to an early lead once again.
By the same token, the Kings will also have to guard against an early push by the Sharks in this game. San Jose isn't going to want this series to get back to SAP Center, because of the coin-flip nature of Game 7 contests. Only three teams in NHL history have ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series, but if the Sharks allow the series to get to a Game 7, then all bets are truly off. Knowing that, guys like Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau are going to really be pushing the tempo early in the game, and if the Kings get too invested in pinching in their blue liners to try to create opportunities against Stalock, then they could potentially give up some odd man rushes in the process.
The first few minutes of this game will be fascinating to be sure, as both teams try to feel out whether they should be more cautious than usual or if they should approach the game with an aggressive attitude. If they adopt the former strategy, then the early stages of the game could be on the boring side. If both sides try to seize the momentum right off the bat, then we could have a slugfest on our hands.
Either way, the Anaheim Ducks will be watching the game intently as they try to begin scouting for their second round opponent.