If you need an idea of how crazy this first-round series between the Kings and Sharks could potentially be, consider that seven goals were scored in Game 1 but neither team led for longer than 3:32 before second intermission. During two especially wild sequences in the second period, San Jose led for all of 40 seconds before Los Angeles tied the game, and the Kings took a one-goal lead only to watch it slip away 30 seconds later.
In the end, it was Joe Pavelski’s wraparound goal 17 seconds into the third period — the fastest playoff goal from the start of a period in Sharks history — that would make the difference. And in a game where no lead looked safe, San Jose managed to shut down the Los Angeles offense for the final 19:43 of the third frame to eke out a 4-3 Game 1 victory.
Pavelski’s game-winning goal came on an impressive play in which the Sharks captain shrugged off Kings center Anze Kopitar, one of the best defensive forwards in the league, and created enough to space to spin a puck on goal to beat Jonathan Quick. For Pavelski, the game-winning goal was further proof that this is his team now, and that it was he who netted the winner after scoring a game-tying power play goal in the first frame seemed fitting in what was his playoff debut as the Sharks’ captain. However, captain or not, that Pavelski scored at an important time should come as a surprise to no one.
Call it East Coast bias or blame it on the fact Pavelski plays on a club with two excellent veterans in Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but ‘Little Joe’ has long been one of the best scorers in the game without half the press of the other top scorers. Pavelski has scored 132 goals over the past four seasons, and only Steven Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin have lit the lamp more than the Sharks winger over that span yet Pavelski is rarely mentioned in the same sentence as either. And when it comes to game-winning goals, only Ovechkin, Max Pacioretty and Jonathan Toews have netted more than Pavelski’s 24. Consider, too, that in the playoffs only Marleau and Patrick Kane have scored more overtime winners than Pavelski since the lockout. He’s underrated in that his game sometimes goes unnoticed, but when he gets the puck, Pavelski can find twine with the best of them.
If the Sharks go on to down the Kings in the opening round, Pavelski’s Game 1 winner will stand up as one of the most important of his career thus far, but even with the Sharks having the early advantage it’s impossible to believe this series is anywhere close to over. Of the playoff contests that have been played this post-season, the opener between the Sharks and Kings was easily the closest.
Both are strong possession teams and they showed it Thursday. At 5-on-5, the Kings had 46 shot attempts to the Sharks’ 44. Total shots, the Sharks had 23 while the Kings had 22. Both teams struck on the power play, and the faceoff battle was won by San Jose, who won 54 percent of the draws. Even in terms of physicality the teams were nearly identical as the Kings threw 36 hits to the Sharks’ 32. Game 1 was as blow-for-blow, shot-for-shot as it gets, and that’s likely to be the case all series long.
So what’s going to make the difference? It’s likely to be individual performances in single games, and don’t be surprised if the two sides don’t have big name players trading those great games off and on until this series ends. There’s likely to be a game-stealing performance from either Quick or Sharks goaltender Martin Jones, a dominant game by Kopitar or Thornton is likely coming and a game where the star defensemen on either side of the puck take over will probably come to pass.
No matter who emerges victorious from this series, though, one thing is for sure: if the opening game of this matchup a sign of what’s to come, get ready for an incredibly thrilling seven-game battle.