Defense carries Kings past Sharks
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- There was so much focus on how depleted the Kings were at center heading into Saturday night's Game 2, but we were reminded yet again of where they are mighty flush: on the blue line.
Drew Doughty scored twice en route to a four-point night, Jack Johnson also tallied a goal and Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi were dynamite defensively as Los Angeles beat San Jose 4-0 to even their Western Conference quarterfinal series at one game apiece.
"This was a game that we needed that back end to step up and really do a job for us," said Kings coach Terry Murray.
Sharks stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were quiet for a second straight game (they have zero points so far in the series) and you can credit Mitchell, especially, for that. And that's with the Kings not even having the last line change in the opening two games.
"They're big players and all you're trying to do is slow them down as much as possible," Mitchell told ESPN.com in a celebratory dressing room. "It's a long series. You know players of that caliber and skill are going to be tough. So far, we've done a good job. You can't keep them totally off [the score sheet], but we'll continue to try and limit them as much as possible."
One wondered how the Kings could compete down the middle without injured star Anze Kopitar and suspended faceoff whiz Jarret Stoll on Saturday night. Somehow, the top three lines -- centered by the Kings' Trevor Lewis, Michal Handzus and Brad Richardson against the Sharks' Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski -- looked awfully tilted in San Jose's favor.
But when you've got a top-four defense corps playing at its best in Doughty, Mitchell, Johnson and Scuderi, you can win a lot of hockey games.
"For us to have a chance, [goaltender Jonathan] Quick is going to have to be our best player and our defense is going to have to play like it has most of the year, and that includes our forwards, too," Scuderi told ESPN.com. "I thought everybody came back and it was a total team effort."
We thought Doughty struggled at times in Game 1, trying to do too much and not looking good at all when Couture blew by him along the sideboards for a goal. But the Canadian Olympic gold medalist was back at his very best Saturday night, not only scoring twice (his first goal a thing of beauty), but also getting under the skin of Sharks winger Ryane Clowe and drawing two penalties on him.
"He's a special player," said Scuderi. "That's not a surprise to anyone in here. For as much as he adds to the offensive side of the puck, he's just as dedicated defensively, and that's what is going to make him a Norris Trophy candidate for a long time to come."
On a night when Doughty gets it right, there's no better player on either team in this series than the 21-year-old blueliner. It's been an up-and-down season for him, but he's already shown in his very young career the ability to shine on the biggest stage, as shown in last season's first-round series against Vancouver and for Team Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
"His upside is unlimited as far as I'm concerned," said Murray. "He's the best young defenseman that I've seen going back the last 10 years. He's really got incredible potential."
With Doughty and his blue-line pals at their best Saturday night, the Sharks were left frustrated. When the Sharks did finally penetrate the Kings' top four on defense, Quick was yet again outstanding, stopping 34 shots and most notably displaying excellent rebound control. He looks confident and up for the challenge against the favored Sharks. The Carey Price of the West, perhaps?
The Kings, meanwhile, won most of the battles Saturday, outworking the Sharks along the boards and showing more will to compete. We can't remember too many times when a player from both teams went into the corner battling for the puck and a King not coming out with it.
"I thought they were a much competitive team than we were," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan. "So we can talk about systems and what we did well or not well on the power play or penalty kill or faceoffs, [but] it has to start with the competitiveness. When you're along the boards, you have to compete as hard or harder than they do."
Kings veteran winger Ryan Smyth, in particular, had another blue-collar gem, setting up in his office behind the net and along the boards all night long and seemingly never losing control of the puck. Grind, grind, grind, cycle, cycle, cycle the Kings did it all night long.
"I love the way we cycled the puck, that was critical to our defensive part of the game," said Murray. "Get pucks behind them. We were strong on the cycle. Lewis with Smyth and Williams were really good. That takes time off the clock and helps us play with confidence."
The Sharks? Ugly. Could they be any more flat at home for a playoff game? They began the night by taking undisciplined penalties, two of which cost them goals as the Kings connected on the power play.
There was no get-up in the Sharks' game; their vaunted attack was completely neutralized and second effort nonexistent. HP Pavilion is one of the loudest rinks in the NHL when things are rolling for the home team, but the Sharks were treated to a full chorus of boos as the second-period horn sounded with San Jose trailing 3-0.
While the top-seeded Canucks stepped it up a notch in Game 2 on Friday night against Chicago, the No. 2-seeded Sharks took a step backward Saturday night and left no guessing which of the contenders looks more ready for the challenge early in the first round.
McLellan was asked if he was mad at his team's effort Saturday night.
"Yeah I am, and I think everybody should be because we're a better team, we're a more competitive group than we showed on the ice tonight," said McLellan. "So if we don't have a bit of anger, if we don't have a bit of shame lingering around us tomorrow or tonight when we go home, I would be extremely disappointed."
Game 3 is Tuesday night at what will be a jacked-up Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Sharks now have an extra day to commiserate, find answers and respond to the same old questions of playoffs past.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.