Playoff-mania is officially back in San Jose. With six games remaining, it wouldn’t get much bigger than their Tuesday night battle with the Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose won one of its most important games of the season, 3-2 in the shootout.
Now, the Sharks and Kings are in a virtual dead heat — 53 points each in the standings, and if the playoffs started today they would be the Western Conference’s 4-5 matchup. But with San Jose’s home record sitting at a stellar 15-1-5, home ice advantage is critical, especially in what would be a pretty evenly-matched battle should these two teams face each other. The Sharks are the fifth seed even with the win, so needless to say they couldn’t afford to drop this game.
A lot can change in the Sharks’ five remaining bouts, but Gary Bettman has to be praying that these two teams meet in the first round. This matchup has it all: unreal goaltending, scoring and genuine hatred. Tuesday night’s game was without a doubt the most exciting of the Sharks’ season, and if anything spoiled it, the fact it had to end in a shootout was all I could come up with (more on the shootout in a minute).
The first period was a scoreless back-and-forth, but the Sharks got things going midway through the second with two goals from Brent Burns and TJ Galiardi, 42 seconds apart. Despite Antti Niemi playing fantastic yet again, he was powerless to stop the Kings’ push back, which started on a Jake Muzzin power play slapshot. Dustin Brown evened the score less than five minutes later with a questionable bulldozer of a goal, and from there it was a nasty fight to the finish.
The third period was where the Sharks’ “tired legs” excuse should have kicked in. They were on the tail end of a back-to-back with an late flight from Phoenix while the Kings were enjoying hurricanes on Santana Row in waiting. The tired legs never came, and somehow the team persevered.
The game went past regulation (shocking, I know), but how else was a game like this supposed to end? It was a playoff atmosphere at HP Pavilion in front of a home crowd that’s completely accustomed to overtime hockey, both this season and in years past. The only thing unnatural about it was when the 5:00 overtime clock expired and the zambonis came out to prep for the shootout. Something was going to give with both teams on the ice, and it felt incomplete to have it decided by a skills competition.
The shootout subplot
Of course Niemi was fantastic, but the real story was Todd McLellan’s new shootout cleanup hitter, Raffi Torres. After Logan Couture missed high and Dan Boyle almost pulled off another ridiculous deke (this one gone awry), the coach turned to his newest addition to put the Sharks on the board.
Torres had to deliver. Of course he did.
The crowd erupted when Torres slid the puck easily through Quick’s five hole. It was entirely new and uncomfortable, suddenly cheering raucously for a player previously loathed. There’s already so much weirdness in Torres being a Shark; it’s difficult for fans to embrace him and many do so through gritted teeth to boot. Now, instead of just easing us in with a meaningless goal or something, he gets his first hero moment in one of the Sharks’ most important games. McLellan had full confidence in Torres to rise to the occasion, and he (ugh) did it for the Sharks and the fans.
— Good Galiardi is really good. If Niemi hadn’t stood on his head for the entire game (on the tail end of a travelling back-t0-back that he probably shouldn’t have played), I could have made a case for Galiardi to be the first star. He had contributions on the score sheet and off of it. His speed is a serious difference maker.
— The Sharks best line is Joe Thornton, a former-fourth liner and a former defenseman. Let that sink in for a second.
— Burns should never play on the blue line again. The further removed we get from McLellan’s decision to move Burns up to forward, the more he produces and the more brilliant McLellan looks. It makes you wonder why anyone ever put him at defense in the first place.
— If something feels different from last year’s home stretch to this years, it’s because they are. They’re completely different. San Jose is a much better team this season, and despite early signs of collapse, they’re in the driver’s seat when it matters. Niemi is one of the hottest goalies in the NHL, the team is much improved defensively and they can score. San Jose could make noise in the playoffs this year.
— Five games left. If you feel like getting excited…