When the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings take to the ice for Game 7 of their first-round series Wednesday night, it will provide the most compelling couple of hours in what has already been a compelling opening round of Stanley Cup competition. Had anyone said before the series that there would be a Game 7 between the Kings and the Sharks, nobody would have been surprised. But these circumstances? Well, perhaps given the way teams come back these days, perhaps we shouldn’t even be surprised by that.
In any event, the game will provide yet another referendum on the Sharks and their core players and whether this team will ever, ever get over the hump in the playoffs. If the Sharks can win the game decisively, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that they then go on some kind of ridiculous tear that sees them winning the Stanley Cup. But if they lose, well, they’ll be just the fourth team in history to blow a 3-0 lead and will have provided irrefutable evidence that they’re not equipped to win in the playoffs.
The game will provide yet another chance for players such as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau to prove their mettle in big games. But they are no longer the only focal points for the Sharks here. Players such as Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Brent Burns have just as much to prove here and just as big a stake in the outcome. One or all of them have to step up and be difference makers in this game.
In short, they have to be just like Justin Williams of the Kings. He already killed the Sharks with two goals in the decisive Game 7 between the two teams last season and has been one of the main reasons why the Kings have been able to battle back after going down 0-3 to the Sharks. He scored twice in Game 6, including the controversial game-winner that probably shouldn’t have counted, and had another two goals in Game 4 when the Kings were staring down the barrel of a sweep.
(On that goal Monday night, the Sharks claim they were jobbed and they might have a case. But teams that are battle tested and resilient don’t sag the way the Sharks did and allow two more quick goals. They use it as a rallying point and display some pushback. Things like that are going to continue to define the Sharks until they actually prove they can overcome them.)
What these eyes see when they watch Justin Williams play in the playoffs is a modern-day Claude Lemieux. Like Lemieux, Williams has won Stanley Cups with multiple teams and like Lemieux, he saves his best for when the games matter most. In the regular season, Williams has scored an average of 0.65 points per game, which is exactly how many Lemieux had in the regular season. In the playoffs, Williams has 58 points in 95 games for a per-game average of 0.61, which is slightly lower than Lemieux’s career average of 0.68 points per post-season game. And in the past four years, Williams has scored more points per game in the playoffs than he has in the regular season.
That is the mark of a player who knows exactly when to raise the level of his game. He has done it time and again during his NHL career and that’s why he has played for teams that have been successful in the playoffs.
It’s the kind of template the Sharks would do well to replicate. After scoring three four points in the first three games of the series, Pavelski scored just one in the following three. After scoring seven points in the first four games, Marleau had no points in Games 4 and 5. Thornton and Couture have zero points combined in the Sharks three losses.
Even though Pavelski and Marleau have as small a disparity between their points in the regular season and the playoffs as Williams does, they would both enhance their reputations for playing in big games if they can score crucial goals the way Williams has demonstrated.
It has essentially come down to the pivotal players on the Sharks being badly outplayed by the best players in the Kings in the past three games. That trend will have to change in Game 7 for the Sharks to avoid the ignominy of another playoff loss, with this one being probably the most painful to endure.