After the Los Angeles Kings won Game 4 of their first round series of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the San Jose Sharks, most people chalked the victory up to the Kings having too much pride to let the Sharks finish off a 4-0 sweep on their home ice. Just about everyone figured that the Sharks would knock the Kings out in San Jose in Game 5, and that would be the end of the 2013-14 Kings team. Well, a funny thing happened on the way to an inevitable Sharks victory–the Kings decided not ‘to gently go into that good night’, as legendary Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully would say. A 3-0 shutout later, with a vintage Jonathan Quick performance in net, and the Kings are one home victory away from reaching Game 7 in San Jose.
Since 1939, when the NHL first introduced a best-of-seven playoff series, there have been 175 series in which one team has taken a three games to none lead. Only three teams have come back to win a series after such a deficit–the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, the 1975 New York Islanders, and the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers (a team led by Jeff Carter and Mike Richards). Only eight teams have even reached a game 7. So the Kings would be making history by simply reaching Game 7 on Wednesday night in San Jose–not that making history by losing Game 7 would be of any solace to a proud Kings team that is built to win now. In the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks, then defending champions, faced a 3-0 series deficit against the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks, before reeling off three straight wins to force a game 7 in Vancouver. The Blackhawks actually made it to overtime in game 7 before losing.
Comebacks from 3-0 playoff series deficits are very rare in the major U.S. professional sports leagues, of course, but the ‘blueprint’ is typically the same for teams attempting the rare feat:
1) Take one game at a time (Kings: check);
2) Don’t focus on the fact that you’re facing a 3-0 deficit (Kings: check);
3) Channel your pride and frustration in having ended up in such a situation (Kings: check):
4) Don’t lose the series on home ice/put pressure on the opposing team to win on theirs (Kings: check, so far);
5) Don’t panic and make numerous line-up changes (Kings: check);
6) Get back to even and let the chips fall where they may (Kings: TBD).
In reaching Game 6, the Kings have gotten back to their roots–defense. In Game 5, the Kings completely shut down the Sharks’ vaunted attack, forcing shots from the outside and limiting rebound opportunities. Of course, Quick has gotten progressively better in this series and was ‘on his game’ in Game 5. If the Kings have any chance to even make it to Game 7, Quick will have to be at his absolute best tonight. Unlike the Kings, who refused to panic and make line-up changes once they were down 3-0, the Sharks have decided to start 3rd-year goalie Alex Stalock in Game 6 instead of Antti Niemi, even though Stalock has only started 18 regular season NHL games in his very brief career. One other key line-up decision, although not a voluntary one, is Marc-Edouard Vlasic‘s removal from the line-up due to an upper-body injury suffered in Game 5 after a hard hit by Jarret Stoll. Vlasic is certainly the Sharks’ best defenseman, and his absence could play a major role in Game 6, especially with a goalie who’s making his first career playoff start.
If the Kings can manage to force Game 7 in San Jose on Wednesday night, all of the pressure will be on the Sharks to avoid an epic collapse after years of well-publicized playoff failures. Psychologically, then, the Kings might just be playing for the whole series tonight in Game 6. If they win, call it a comeback.