Joe Thornton and the Sharks have been in command of many playoff series over the past decade. The San Jose captain has also seen just how easily control slips away during nine straight postseason trips without raising the Stanley Cup.
That’s why the Sharks are both comfortable and concerned with a chance to finish off the reeling Los Angeles Kings in Game 4 of the first round tonight.
“Don’t give us a passing grade yet, because we’re still taking the test,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said Wednesday after the Sharks’ mellow skate at Staples Center.
After so many years of playoff disappointments, the Sharks are one win away from kicking off their latest postseason run with quite a sweeping statement. Not even the Sharks themselves thought they could outskate, outhit and thoroughly outplay the Kings, whose own postseason credentials are unquestioned after their title run just two years ago. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick and the NHL’s best defensive team have been shredded for 17 goals by the Sharks’ balanced lines.
The Sharks got in position to eliminate the 2012 champs and their biggest rivals with a 4-3 victory in Game 3 on Patrick Marleau’s fourth career overtime-winning goal.
“We’re a confident group right now, and hopefully we can show that (in Game 4),” Thornton said. “(Game 3) could have gone either way. We know how close it is.”
Starting with the franchise’s first trip to the Western Conference finals in 2004, the Sharks have won 10 playoff series and made the conference finals three times. San Jose has missed the playoffs just once since 1997, right before Marleau joined the club.
But one more victory would clinch just the second series sweep in Sharks history, joining last season’s first-round whitewash of Vancouver.
“We’re coming to win and finish them in Game 4,” Sharks forward Logan Couture said. “You can’t give a team like the L.A. Kings any life. They’re going to come to play.”
The Kings regrouped after two embarrassments at the Shark Tank to open the series, playing two solid periods to open Game 3 before surrendering 23 shots and a lead in the third. Los Angeles also played well in overtime, but lost on the Sharks’ first shot of extra time.
The Kings realize they’ll need every bit of their playoff experience to pull off an unlikely comeback, but they didn’t seem discouraged after a meeting at their training complex.
“We’re going to come out and throw everything at them,” Anze Kopitar said.
The Kings haven’t trailed 0-3 in a playoff series since 2000, and only three teams in NHL history have rallied from that deficit to win a series. Los Angeles forwards Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were with the Flyers in 2010 — Carter was injured — when Philadelphia rallied from three games down to beat Boston.
“Three-oh is a big hole, but it’s been done before,” said Carter, who scored his first goal in his last six playoff games Tuesday. “You win one game and you start to get some momentum going. We have to go into their building and win two games. You have to approach it as one game. You win that one game, you put a little doubt in their mind and they know that we’re coming.”
The Sharks have exploited Quick’s aggressive, scrambling style in the first three games, making the Stanley Cup-winning goalie look positively ordinary. San Jose’s speed in the neutral zone has led to numerous quality chances, and the Sharks’ passing ability and puck pursuit have made Quick pay for his gambles.
Quick’s .852 save percentage is nearly the worst in the NHL playoffs, a shocker for a team with success built on defense. The Kings’ top offensive players improved in Game 3, with Carter and Marian Gaborik getting their first goals of the series, but they’ll likely have to do even more to earn another trip to the Shark Tank this weekend.
“You just can’t look at the mountain and expect to do it all at once,” Richards said. “It’s a process. It’s a time to be excited about the opportunity. Not many teams have done this.”
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