Matt Nieto (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The San Jose Sharks have taken a commanding lead in their first-round series against the Los Angeles Kings, in large part because they're not allowing the Kings to get inside their heads.
At one time during the telecast of Game 4 between the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, a post-game day skate was aired featuring Kings defenseman Drew Doughty talking about how the Kings were very confident about their chances in the series. Doughty then gave a toothless smile, one that carried a distinct message.
Even though Doughty wasn’t exactly providing the Sharks with rich bulletin-board fodder, his intent was very clear. The Kings have this uncanny ability to make things more uncomfortable than a British sitcom for their opponents, regardless of where the series stands. Doughty was clearly doing his best to get into the Sharks players heads, a place he and his teammates have occupied with an enormous amount of success in the past. The Kings have obviously earned the right to walk and talk with a swagger and they have the Stanley Cup rings to prove it.
But we’re now on the verge of having a team other than the Kings or Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup for the first time in five years because the Sharks are having none of it. At least not yet. If there were ever a time for the Kings to flex their muscles and force their way back into the driver’s seat it was in Game 4. If there were ever a time for the perennially fragile Sharks to give themselves and their fans reason to start to doubt, it was in Game 4. If there were ever any time for the Sharks to fold, it was in the third period, when they watched a commanding 3-0 lead shrink to 3-2 with more than half the third period still remaining.
But this Sharks team, one that did not make the playoffs last season and has spent its fair share of time being enigmatic this season, is a machine – a great, big, nasty, efficient machine. It is showing in this first round that it can match the Kings step for step when it comes to smashmouth hockey. It can score by cycling the puck around the offensive zone. It can score off the rush. And as it showed in its 3-2 win over the Kings in Game 4 to take a 3-1 lead in the series, it can score on the power play. The Kings scored all three of their goals with the man advantage. Making a team pay for its indiscretions is a very good way of blunting any hold it might have over you.
And when the biggest, most important cog in that machine, in this case Joe Thornton, is playing the way he has in this series, that machine is going to be very difficult to stop. Thornton has had a checkered playoff past and is probably unfairly portrayed as an underachiever in the playoffs. But if he has ever listened to that criticism, he’s taking it to heart and trying his darndest to change that perception. Following up a regular season in which he’ll get some serious consideration for the Hart Trophy, Thornton seems intent on establishing himself as a Conn Smythe candidate.
If history is any indicator, this series is far from over. The Kings are like a cockroach in the playoffs. They’re never dead until they’re crushed into the carpet and their legs stop moving. And that moment only will come when the Sharks can look at the scoreboard one more time at the end of the game and see that they have more goals than the Kings, an accomplishment far easier said than done. Nothing should be assumed, nothing pre-determined. The Kings are far too good, far too experience, and, even down 3-1 in the first round, far too confident to go quietly into the night. And the Sharks, well, they’re the Sharks.
That said, the Kings shouldn’t be the only confident team in this series. The Sharks did start to bend a little after the Kings imposed their will on the third period, but in the end, they did not break. Much more of the same will be required.