WCQF Game 1: Battle Lines drawn after opening game of San Jose vs. Los Angeles, teams dig in for a long series
A hotly contested regular season series evolved into a tight, physical playoff battle after all of 1 WCQF playoff game. The San Jose Sharks needed 74+ minutes, a strong 33-save performance by Antti Niemi, and a resilient defense to adapt to the injury of Ian White on the fly en route to a 3-2 OT win over the Los Angeles Kings. The critical turning point of the game did not occur when Dany Heatley backhanded a rebound for the opening goal 28 seconds in, or when Devin Setoguchi nearly missed a second scoring chance less than a minute later. The Sharks blitzed Los Angeles in the first period, outshooting them 14-3 and coming at them in waves with speed through the neutral zone.
The turning point for San Jose came when Jarret Stoll drove defenseman Ian White’s head into the dasherboard at the end of the first period. The Sharks were able to maintain their discipline and compsure to start the next 20 minutes. “Both sides are trying to get under each other’s skin,” Kings captain Dustin Brown told FSW reporter Heidi Androl at first intermission. “It could be the difference in a game if you take a bad penalty. You have to tuck your ego away and play hockey.” Brown was tested in the first period. After being walled off in the offensive zone hard by Douglas Murray, Brown bounced off the plexiglass and flattened out on top of him. Fans in the front row only had a view of his skates sticking over the boards as Brown took an extra second or two to get back to his feet.
With a number of key young players on each side of the ice, maintaining discipline and playing mistake free hockey was a mantra for both teams. The Sharks got away from the tight, defensively responsible play that saw them earn a 27-6-4 record since mid-January. Jamal Mayers and Ryane Clowe took unneccessary penalties in the neutral and offensive zone in the first period, and defenseman Niclas Wallin took a delay of game penalty firing the puck over the glass in the second. With goal scoring being the most prominent issue facing the Kings, allowing three power plays early was not in the gameplan. A consistent backcheck by centerman Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski helped smooth over some of the rough spots early.
The Kings blunted the Sharks quick transition up ice as the game progressed by stacking players at the blueline and applying pressure to the first man in on the forecheck. After a rocky start that nearly saw a 2-0 Sharks lead inside of the first 2 minutes, Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick settled down and provided solid goaltending for the duration. Against Detroit in the Western Conference Semifinals last year, the Sharks got to young goalie Jimmy Howard early and the problems and second guessing multiplied. Quick is a more determined, mentally tough netminder who battles in net to make saves. Given the Sharks propensity to crash the net with regularity, Quick and the Kings defense will be tested with regularity throughout the series.
A slick display of offensive skill by defenseman Douglas Murray (he took a short pass and snapped a shot off the side of the net, carried it behind for a wraparound, then slid back and got his own rebound for another shot on goal that was blocked), was the result of a shot by Kings forward Wayne Simmonds that ricocheted around the boards and sprung an oddman rush. The Sharks Logan Couture experienced a similar play minutes later. Holding on to the puck shorthanded as he entered the zone on the right wing, he fired a nearside shot that rimmed around the boards just outside the reach of 2 Sharks penalty killers. The Kings broke up ice for a 2-on-1 against Jason Demers, and Dusin Brown buried his first goal of the game at 7:25. Couture would get that back less than three minutes later, after a quick series of passes in the d-zone sprung him up ice and he buried a shot high.
Mistakes, the opportunities created by them, and the ability of the Kings and Sharks to convert would be critical in the opening game. The hitting in the game was voracious, with both teams credited for a total of 79 (Sharks 43, Kings 36). Normally thought of as an offensive skill player, Alexei Ponikarovsky registered 6 hits in the game and was moved up to the top line with Michal Handzus and Dustin Brown to start the third period. Ponikarovsky hammered Douglas Murray on a forecheck in the first, and was knocked to the ice by Jason Demers after firing a shot early in the second. The Sharks dodged two bullets when Ponikarovsky knocked Marleau off balance at the end of the second, the Sharks alternate captain collided akwardly into the boards near the penalty box. Ponikarovsky also caused a similarly awkward collision after checking Devin Setoguchi in the corner. Brown lead the Kings with 7 hits, but Ponikarovsky made an distinct impact with 6 of his own.
At times the focus of trying to put a hit on an opponent can take a team out of their system, and it happened somewhat to both the Sharks and the Kings as the game progressed. On the Kings second goal, Ryan Smyth was manned by Dan Boyle as he carried the puck behind the net. His forward momentum stopped rather violently as Douglas Murray checked him to the ice. The puck kept moving forward, directly to an unchecked Justin Williams on the far side. Williams tucked the puck into the goal as Niemi was turned initially looking in the wrong direction. After the Kings carried long stretches of play in the second and third period, sustained pressure by the Sharks with 7:30 left in the third nearly turned the tide.
Kings defenseman Drew Doughty made a highlight reel series of plays, and took a penalty that nearly cost his team the game in the same sequence with 2:11 left in the third period. It was a missed hip check by Doughty that Logan Couture danced around to score the second SJ goal of the game. Late in the third, he lept up to keep a clearing play by Thornton in the offensive zone. Doughty then banked a pass to himself off the wall, went around Wellwood on the outside, and was stopped rather succinctly in the corner by Douglas Murray. In San Jose, Kyle Wellwood has quickly developed on a puck possession third line with fellow forwards Joe Pavelski and Torrey Mitchell. Underrated is their defensive commitment as all three do not give up on a play. Wellwood came in from behind to pick the puck off Doughty, and he was tripped to the ice in the process. The veteran may have offered some visual cues to help the referee make that decision.
The Sharks penalty kill was a focus prior to the series because of the struggles it had down the stretch, but the Sharks power play looked out of sorts with only 2 opportunities on display Thursday night. San Jose could not put the puck passed Quick with the man advantage for nearly the final two minutes, and the Kings forced overtime. In 2 power play opportunities, the Sharks were 0-3 on faceoffs, fired 3 shots on goal, missed the net with 4 shots and had 2 shots blocked. The Kings strong PK was able to clear the puck 5 times.
Asked by a local reporter after the game how the Sharks would have felt if they had lost, the Sharks have a woeful 1-5 record to in game 1′s over the last 3 years, Clowe had the perfect answer. He said that he knows his team can battle back. A stronger, more defensivel responsible San Jose squad still has 3 lines worth of offensive tools at its disposal, and a handful of defenseman who are capable of making the difference in a game and a series. There is an inner confidence born of a pretty comprehensive team turnaround mid-way through the regular season, but also a product of gut check wins over Colorado and long-time playoff nemisis Detroit last year. If the team works hard and plays smart, confidence is not going to be a problem for them.
Kyle Welwood sparked the game winning sequence in overtime. As rookie defenseman Alec Martinez tried to pull the puck up to his stick in the offensive zone, Wellwood poke checked it off him. Martinez hit the ice as he tried to reverse direction, and Wellwood hit Clowe, who in turn fed Wellwood on a rush through the neutral zone. Wellwood gained the blueline and stalled as Clowe drove the front of the net, and a winded Joe Pavelski at the end of the shift took the long pass and buried a wrist shot up high. “The Big Pavelski” scored another game winner, and he didn’t even have to dust off his patented shootout move to do it. Antti Niemi and Jonathan Quick provided spectacular playoff goaltending in the opening game of the all-California series, but 1 mistake or 1 missed opportunity could decide the bulk of the decisions in this playoff matchup. It is that tight between both teams.
A photo gallery from the opening game of the WCQF series is available here.
[Update] Penner a royal disappointment for Kings, Former Oiler demoted to fourth line during playoff series opener, didn’t score in last 12 games of regular season – Jim Matheson for the Edmonton Journal.
[Update2] ‘I think I’ll be back pretty soon,’ says Ian White — and some nice things to say about Jarret Stoll – David Pollak’s Working the Corners blog.