On Wednesday night, the San Jose Sharks suffered their most crushing defeat in franchise history at the hands of their fierce rivals, the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings recovered from a 3-0 series hole to deal the Sharks a final blow in the form of 5-1 away victory.
Here I have compiled a list of what I believe are the five most telling reasons for the Sharks’ early demise these playoffs.
1.) Team Psychology. In recent years the San Jose Sharks have been viewed by many NHL fans as perennial chokers. While this is not a justification to label the current Sharks team as such, it certainly is a factor that has weighed heavily on the minds of some of the core players.
After game seven, leading left-winger Patrick Marleau admitted “You don’t usually agree with it but then you do something like this and it’s not easy to take” when confronted with criticism of long-standing playoff underachievement.
Clearly the Los Angeles Kings fared much better in the mentality department this series. Their ability to put aside two devastating defeats, followed by a narrow and hard-fought loss on home ice gave them a fighting chance in game four. They were able to re-group and use the momentum effectively from their first win of the series to force game seven.
In game seven, both teams were faced with the prospect of elimination. This was San Jose’s turn to have their backs to the wall. It was their turn to respond. But unlike the Kings they couldn’t find that X-factor when called upon.
2.) Top Players. Simply put, the Kings’ top players turned up for a seven game series. The Sharks’ top players turned up for three.
In the first three games, the Sharks’ top players of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski combined for 7 goals and 9 assists. During the final three games they had only 3 points between them. The only two goals the Sharks scored in these last three came from the unexpected sources of James Sheppard and Matt Irwin.
Where the Sharks top players started fast and finished very slow, the Kings top players started slow and finished very fast. Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams, Marian Gaborik, and Tyler Toffoliscored often and regularly throughout the series. They combined for 14 goals and 11 assists in the seven games, with Anze Kopitar getting at least one point in every game.
Ultimately, when none of your top players get on the board in a game the story’s often going to end the same.
3.) Physicality. This series will go down as one of the most physical series in NHL playoff history. The hit count after seven games was almost exactly even (316 – 312 in San Jose’s favour).
At first this seemed not to phase the Sharks. They capitalised on the Kings’ defensive errors and punished them on the rush. With it being a seven game series however, the continual physical play and aggressive forechecking by the Kings wore the Sharks down.
The current Los Angeles Kings are known to play a tenacious and physical style of hockey. They thrive in these tough, closed types of games. San Jose made the mistake of not finishing the series quickly in four games. Instead they gave the Kings a chance to inflict their trademark brand of physicality on them to the point where the Sharks were unable to play their favoured quick and transitional type of play.
4.) Special Teams. The Sharks’ power play was a significant factor in their season-ending series.
In their final three losses, the Sharks failed to get a power play goal on fifteen chances. Six of these chances came in game seven. Had the Sharks scored on two of their game seven power plays, the Kings wouldn’t have scored two empty-netters and the Sharks may have scraped a win.
Conversely, their power kill units did a less than stellar job. Giving up six power play goals, and ending the series with a 75% PK, gave the Sharks one extra thing to worry about.
5.) Goalies. As is becoming the norm in professional ice hockey leagues, goalies can steal you a game, or even a series. It’s easy to make the argument in this case for Kings netminder Jonathan Quick having done just that.
Quick was barricaded with shots from the Sharks throughout the series. It proved to be too much for him in the first two games, but he regained his composure to block all but five of the 135 shots he faced in his final four games. When you’re shooting against a brick wall you have to bring nothing but perfect execution to get a goal.
Starting goalie Antti Niemi struggled all series. He was replaced twice, and saw no ice time in game six. When playing against a team that makes you work so hard to get a single goal, you need a goalie you can rely on.
So what are the take-home messages from the Sharks’ loss?
Have the right desire to win. Your top players need to be your top players. Train hard so you can withstand tough physical contests. Practice with your special teams over and over – they can be a game changer.