Hahn: Sharks have gotten through pressure of a must-win game
Defenseman Scott Hannan and the Sharks hope to catch a few breaks during Game 7. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
Programming note: Sharks-Kings Game 7 coverage gets underway today at 5:30 p.m with Sharks Pregame Live; No TV? Watch the LIVE STREAM of Game 7 on CSNCalifornia.com (http://nhlstream2.nbcsports.com) at 6 p.m.
LOS ANGELES -- After a "best of 7" turned "best of 3", we have now arrived at a "best of one" between the Sharks and Kings. It's the tension of a tilt where one team's fate is sealed, while the other continues in this tournament of endurance. Optimally, the outcome is determined by one group performing decidedly better across 60 minutes tonight, however, it's entirely possible that a single play/call/break/bounce makes all the difference in settling 420+ minutes of a series.
At times, each lineup has shown they are the one deserving to advance. So many people have called this series a "coin flip" through 6 games, and who is to disagree tied at 3-3? My observations to date have led to charting out advantages for each side tonight, in what could be one of the most important postseason games in Sharks history.
Advantages for San Jose:
Experience: As previously documented, Shark players have more than twice as much "Game 7 experience" than the Kings do (31-15). However this history is only relevant when it translates into the present… and so far, it has. San Jose players were admittedly calm heading into Game 6, and will aim to keep that advantage throughout today in Los Angeles. While interview quotes will tell you "…it's just another hockey game…", Game 7's are anything but.
Recency: Facing elimination is nothing new to the Sharks, who were up against it two nights ago. In fact, San Jose has wanted/needed this Game 7 ever since last Thursday night, while the Kings tried everything to avoid it. The last time Los Angeles felt this many nerves and pressure was in the first round of April 2011 when San Jose defeated them in Game 6. The Kings have already lost more games in this postseason (5) than they did in 4 rounds (16-4) last year en route to the Cup.
Motivation: The Sharks clearly remember their last time at Staples Center, when after Game 5, some players described portions of the team effort as "nervous" and "garbage". In 10 playoff games this year, San Jose has endured one struggle, and it just so happens to be the last contest they played here in Los Angeles. In essence, that game might be just the inspiration and blueprint the team needs to avoid a similar outcome tonight.
Advantage for Los Angeles:
Home Ice: In 10 meetings this season between Los Angeles and San Jose, the home team has always scored first, and won the contest. Not to mention, the Kings have not lost at Staples Center in more than 2 months (13 straight wins, since March 23rd). Add in what is sure to be an inspired home crowd, and enough is said.
Quick-ness: The only goaltender to post a shutout in this series has done it twice to the opponent. While Antti Niemi has played a huge factor for his club, Jonathan Quick and the defense in front of him have earned 2 of their 3 wins in this series by keeping San Jose off the scoreboard entirely. Certainly Niemi is capable of equaling this task, but so far only Quick has proven it.
Earned Entitlement: This is not meant in a demeaning way, but winning a Stanley Cup in such dramatic (yet simple) fashion last spring, has left the Los Angeles hockey community in a sense of unparalleled belief ever since. It definitely comes with the territory of the accomplishment. And while no NHL team has gone all the way in back-to-back campaigns since the late 90's, Darryl Sutter and his group still have a special buzz surrounding them, which some interpret as destiny on the path to another four-round postseason.