Ratto: Sharks discover cure for 3-goal lead in Game 4

April 22, 2011, 5:24 am
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Ray Ratto

LOS ANGELES -- The Sharks finally decided to be, well, the Sharks,which meant that they had to turn the Los Angeles Kings into, well, theLos Angeles Kings.

That mission has nearly been accomplished, with a convincing 6-3victory over the Kings in Game 4 of this Western Conferencequarterfinal. San Jose took command early, nearly gave it away byallowing two goals near the end of the second period (this is,after all, not your standard 2-7 series), but finally choke-slammed thegame into submission with three more in the third.

Ryane Clowe, the persistent and forceful wing who along with LoganCouture has come to redefine this team, scored twice in the secondperiod, and Jason Demers, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and TorreyMitchell anted up as well to turn an occasionally harrowing game into aclinical dispatching.

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We looked like we did down the stretch of the regular season,Thornton said after contributing the convincing fourth goal 2:28 intothe third period. Everybody did the little things you need to do in aseries like this, and we came a lot closer than we have so far to playour kind of game.

The biggest adjustment seems to be a different approach to attacking Los Angeles goalie Jonathan Quick, who likes to come to the top of crease and even beyond at times, and is further protected by his defensemen collapsing in around him, taking away the standard shooting lanes.

The Sharks, though, crated spaces to the sides and forced Quick to move more side to side and cover more ground than even a goalie with his size can reasonably do.

The result: In the first seven periods of the series, he stopped 83 of 86 shots. In the subsequent five and change, he has allowed 12 in 56; the Sharks have outscored the Kings 12-4 in that span, and are now on the verge of winning a series in five games that they actually gave up eight consecutive goals in, a bizarre way to go about ones business.

I think were a little more confident, head coach Todd McLellan said without elaborating, playing the right way, doing the little things you have to do. Theres still room to improve before Saturday, but were getting closer. You keep striving for the perfect game, though it isnt possible

Clowe is flirting with it, though; two more goals Thursday, including one which was as much an own-goal by Kings defenseman Alec Martinez, and a physical presence at both ends that was noticeable throughout the evening. He, Couture and Dany Heatley have been persistently disruptive, and the Pavelski-Wellwood-Mitchell line has been so bothersome of late that L.A. coach Terry Murray put his best defense pair, Drew Doughty and Willie Mitchell, on that line for much of the first period.

Eventually, though, the Sharks simply started playing as the team that knows it is better across the board. It made the adjustments to Quick that were needed, they did a better job of protecting and promoting their own goalie, Antti Niemi, and finally forced a level of form on a series that has made precious little sense to date.

Plus, Thornton finally broke his goal-scoring drought, which is always a big deal in and of itself. That it was the vital fourth San Jose goal to re-establish their control over the game was particularly fortuitous. That it came with so much open ice was the surprise.

I came off the bench, and I just made a beeline for the goal, he said, nursing a dime-sized knot over his left eye. The other guys (Patrick Marleau and Wellwood) did a great job (Wellwood behind the net in particular), and the puck was right there.

It was a chippy game at moments; Thornton got his eye kissed on the games opening shift, and he was later speared by Dustin Brown (youll know it by the fact that the box score said he was slashed by Brown), and it ended with three misconduct penalties.

But for the most part it was a game in which San Jose finally showed its San Jose-ishness -- controlling space and pace, adjusting to the problems the Kings set before them, and eventually finishing the job with decisiveness and as much precision as can be allowed in what defenseman Dan Boyle said was an ugly game. Not a lot of pretty passing or graceful moves. Just getting to where you need to get and holding your ground.

The Sharks now must hold home ice, which has only happened once in the series and only 14 times in the 33 games played so far. If they can, they await developments in Chicago, where the Canucks and Blackhawks play Game 6 Sunday. If Vancouver wins, the Sharks host Detroit next week. If not, they must wait until Tuesdays seventh game to see if they might play Chicago instead.

Either match will be an even more persistent grind than this series has been -- but this Sharks team is better suited to the grind than any of their predecessors. We will see if theyre better suited to it than either the Wings or Hawks.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for CSNBayArea.com.

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