“Just win, baby.” An effective expression for sports, as victories are what matter in the end, but it really doesn’t do the San Jose Sharks justice right now. They’re showing us a side of them we’ve rarely if ever seen not just because they’re winning, but because of how they’re winning.
Remember that vintage L.A. Kings period, when they silenced the SAP Center crowd with two rapid first-period goals, when Jonathan Quick looked absolutely unstoppable, turning aside all 15 shots? And remember the Kings’ humiliating 7-2 defeat, in which Quick was a sieve and an emotionally rattled Kings team saw captain Dustin Brown ejected? Hard to believe it all happened in the same night. And if the Sharks end up on a long, glorious run this spring, we may look back at April 20 as the night they went from prey to predators in the Western Conference.
On a stacked San Jose team, the catalysts were actually the grinders. Make no mistake: the likes of Raffi Torres and Mike Brown won Game 2.
It looked as though the Kings were about to do their thing, with Quick’s trademark athleticism the dominant story. I even posted this now-humiliating tweet after the first period:
Based on that period, I predict Quick doesn’t allow a goal in the second or third, either.
— Matt Larkin (@THNMattLarkin) April 21, 2014
OOPS. Embarrassing, sure, but the prediction came from a familiar narrative. The veteran team with the world’s best clutch goalie was in classic bounce-back road mode and the Sharks’ fragile pysche after years of chokejobs would keep them from coming back. After all, they were 2-23 lifetime when trailing by two or more goals after the first period of a playoff game.
Then the murderer’s row of Brown, Torres and Justin Braun happened in the second period, giving San Jose the lead and sparking an unbelievable onslaught of seven unanswered goals. Here’s Torres with the equalizer:
The Sharks’ stars, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and so on, showed up on the scoresheet by game’s end, but they didn’t do the heavy lifting this time.
And that’s why this Sharks team looks far more dangerous than any recent memory or, well, ever. We saw the marquee players take over for five consecutive goals in Game 1, This time, it was the grinders. Champions in the NHL are true teams in that they find more than one way to win, with more than one group of players.
Love Torres or hate him, he’s at his absolute best for the Sharks right now. He showed a goal-scorer’s touch on the tying goal and he threw his weight around with almost reckless, but not too reckless abandon. He was in Kings defenseman Matt Greene’s head. He and linemates Mike Brown and Andrew Desjardins were out there when Dustin Brown got ejected. And Torres literally poked the Kings right down to the final buzzer. As the horn in San Jose sounded, Torres was on the ice antagonizing Trevor Lewis. Torres did it all in shockingly productive 11 minutes and 43 seconds.
The message Torres and his linemates, who earned all three stars, sent goes beyond Game 2 and may define San Jose’s entire season. “We won’t be intimidated by a championship team. Better yet, we’ll absolutely mop the floor with that team for two games straight. We’ll be in their heads, not vice versa.”
The Thornton, Marleau and Boyle years are transitioning to the Pavelski, Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl years. Marc-Edouard Vlasic has become one of the top defensive defensemen in the game. And the Sharks’ role-players are looking like the crucial difference makers always heralded when teams sip champagne from the Cup in late spring.
It’s only two games, but the Sharks could not have been more emphatic in their statement. Everything we’ve seen in these young playoffs says this is a new breed.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin