The San Jose Sharks easily dismissed the Vancouver Canucks in the first round, the only team to put together a sweep thus far in the postseason, yet the path will be much more difficult moving forward. That reality hit hard on Tuesday night in a 2-0 shutout loss as the Sharks were unable to solve the continuing playoff mystery that is goaltender Jonathan Quick.
Logan Couture and his line enjoyed incredible success against the Canucks, with the big center finishing with eight points in just four games -- including six points in two home games in San Jose. Couture's rise over the past few seasons, as well as his big play in the first round, was expected to help add some balance to an offensive attack that too often had become one-dimensional and wrapped around Joe Thornton to succeed with the stakes were at their highest.
This lack of balance in the playoffs has led to the Sharks gaining a reputation of a team that falls apart when adversity strikes in the postseason. The franchise has not missed the postseason since 2003 and has two conference finals appearances since 2010, yet still cannot shake the moniker of a team incapable of getting the upper hand against the best the NHL has to offer -- no matter what may have happened in the regular season.
The Sharks came out in the first period, after a full week of rest following their first round sweep of the Canucks, as a team on a mission and controlled play for most of the first period. As has happened so many times in recent years, however, the Sharks proved unable to take advantage of prime scoring chances and despite a lethal-looking power play never could truly take control of the game.
That sliver of sunlight was all the Kings needed, scoring with just 13 seconds remaining in the first period to take what would be an impossible lead for the Sharks to overcome.
The Kings did a masterful job of putting the Anze Kopitar line directly up against Couture, Patrick Marleau and Raffi Torres, victimizing the Sharks' top line for the majority of the game and using a big second period push to fully take control of the game. Couture proved no match straight up against Kopitar, who dominated play against the line for the majority of the game -- which also allowed the Kings to better focus on shutting down Joe Thornton.
Couture and company were then beaten by Mike Richards and Slava Voynov for a second period goal that would essentially place the game well out of reach.
To their credit, the Sharks showed plenty of fight and perhaps moreso than we would have seen in recent years. San Jose directed 28 total shots on goal in the third period, officially outshooting the Kings 16-4 in the frame and putting Los Angeles back on their heels for the majority of the period. This was the sort of attack the Kings were used to doling out to the opposition and showed against St. Louis that this was a team that is indeed vulnerable when put against the ropes.
Yet again, however, the Kings showcased the sort of resiliency that carried them to the Stanley Cup in 2012. After two straight losses to open the postseason the Kings have now won five straight, outscoring the opposition 12-6 in that span with Jonathan Quick obviously right back in the top form he enjoyed on his way to lifting the Cup last season.
It's a scary thought for the Sharks, that once again they come up against a team clicking on all cylinders right a time when San Jose appears ready for true postseason success. This is not the same Sharks team of year's past; there is a belief this a deeper, stronger team with better goaltending than ever before -- but that there's a chance the window is closing on the Sharks' chances at truly finding glory.
Quick was a perfect 35-for-35 on Tuesday night, showing the incredible sense of calm and control he has when moving about the crease. There were many instances where a scramble in front appeared to be headed toward an imminent goal against yet Quick would confidently shut down such thoughts with a masterful kick of his leg pad or a subtle flick of his shoulder.
The Sharks appeared to command play of the game for the better part of the first and third periods, yet the Kings were never truly not in control of the game. Not with Jonathan Quick in net. A team that opened the 2013 season a bit rusty and perhaps feeling the pressures of being the defending champions suddenly appear to be the most stable teams remaining in this postseason.
This series is far from over, however, and the guess is that the Sharks walked away from Game 1 feeling confident despite the shutout loss. If San Jose cannot begin to solve Quick, however, and Couture is unable to find the same level of play he enjoyed against the Canucks, then this is a Sharks team that could be once again headed for a relatively early departure from the postseason.