The San Jose Sharks left Los Angeles on Thursday night a beaten and broken team.
For two games the Sharks had grossly outplayed the Kings for most of the six periods of the series, dominating on the faceoff dot and controlling possession for nearly whole periods at a time. Yet the Sharks limped away down 2-0 thanks to a monster performance by Jonathan Quick and one heck of a meltdown in the final minutes of a what should have been a triumphant third period.
As the series skipped over to San Jose questions began to arise once more over the resolve of this Sharks team, whether Todd McLellan's squad would join the ranks of other Sharks teams to have fumbled away a golden opportunity in the postseason. Instead of stealing a game in Los Angeles the Sharks collapsed around the pressure, aided by late-game penalty trouble, and it seemed a quick exit in the second round would be the final chapter in this long storyline.
Yet Sharks captain Joe Thornton has found another level to his game and has led his team to two straight home victories to tie the series, including a 2-1 victory on Tuesday night that suddenly made this one heck of a competitive series moving forward.
Thornton's time and success in San Jose has mirrored that of the Sharks. For all of his regular season prowess and success, Thornton has struggled to live up to expectations in the postseason despite producing at nearly a point-per-game pace in the playoffs throughout his career.
This postseason, Thornton has taken the challenge of overcoming lowering expectations with perhaps the finest postseason performance of his career -- especially when you factor in his dominance on the faceoff dot. Aside from nine points in eight games, however, it's Thornton's energy and leadership that is truly moving this team forward.
In both games in front of the home crowd, the Sharks have controlled play from the drop of the puck. On Tuesday night, this full frontal assault led to an early lead that the Sharks would never relinquish, despite a heavy counter attack by the Kings as the contest wore on.
Hitting the ice like a bat out of hell, Thornton set the pace for a frantic first period by the Sharks. The Kings did not attempt a shot on goal for the final half of the first period, with San Jose outshooting the Kings 21-9 by the end of the second period. Thornton's speed and power were on full display on Tuesday, including the opening goal by Brent Burns that gave the Sharks an early 1-0 lead.
Thornton's charge led the Sharks on a clinic on how to control play, with a hard forecheck and speed through the neutral zone boosted by hyper-aggressive movement of the puck with accurate passing and instant changes to the point of attack. This full frontal assault had the Kings on their heels from the start of the game and almost all of it can be attributed to the team's captain.
"Joe was dominant tonight," said Sharks center Logan Couture. "That was vintage Joe Thornton. Unbelievable -- creating turnovers, making passes, skating. Skating like a young guy. He was flying. Me personally, got me going. We need Joe to play like that for the rest of the playoffs."
On Burns' goal, Thornton beat out Slava Voynov in a race for the puck behind the net and instantly turned and fired a pass to the front of the net. Blocked by the Kings' Mike Richards, Thornton gained control of the puck once more and fired a pass across the crease pass the befuddled defense and right onto the tape of Burns -- who tapped home the gaping-net goal.
San Jose hit the Kings full square on the chin in the first period, and again to start the second, yet never seemed capable of truly pulling away. Jonathan Quick allowed the Kings to withstand the assault long enough to get their game back underneath them, and the Sharks would still need to hang tough in the final period to secure the victory.
The same challenges that faced the Sharks in Los Angeles were just as present in San Jose -- the Sharks have certainly controlled most aspects of this series yet Quick has certainly been the better goaltender between himself and Antti Niemi. Quick's ability to keep the game close is trouble for San Jose, especially when facing a team with the resolve of the Kings, and despite the warm feelings of Games 2 and 3, there's no doubt that San Jose is far from truly being in control of this series.
Yet with Joe Thornton coming alive and putting his team on his back in the postseason, perhaps this could be the year the San Jose Sharks finally break through. They'll need to win a best-of-three series now in order to accomplish that with two games being played in Los Angeles -- can the Sharks and Thornton forget the nightmares of just one week ago?