Sharks look sharper than Kings through 4

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- To a man, players on the San Jose Sharks heading into Game 4 felt they had outplayed the Los Angeles Kings despite being down in the series.

That’s fine and dandy, Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle said the other day, but unless it shows up on the scoreboard, it means nothing.

Now it has. Now it does.

Brent Burns and Logan Couture scored the goals, Joe Thornton was a one-man wrecking crew, and the Sharks served notice Tuesday night with a second straight win in a 2-1 decision: If the defending Stanley Cup champions are going to have a shot at repeating, they’re going to have to raise their game to another level.

Because, right now, the Kings are fortunate it’s only a 2-2 series and not worse.

They were outshot 15-3 in the opening period Tuesday night, thanks to Jonathan Quick only being outscored 1-0, but the reigning Cup champions looked completely overmatched early on in what helped set the tempo for a Sharks win.

“That first period was as good as we’ve played possibly all year,” Boyle said.

On the flip side, the Kings have rarely looked so disorganized.

“You've got [to] prepare, get ready for the drop of the puck,” Kings center Mike Richards said. “It was 1-0 before we even knew what was going on out there.”

Burns opened the scoring 6:09 into the game, taking a beautiful feed from Thornton as their line, with T.J. Galiardi, skated circles around the Kings' zone.

“I thought they were very good early, established a relentless forecheck and used their size to their advantage,” Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said of the Thornton line. “Obviously, they got us the first goal. And the momentum they created ran throughout the rest of the lines, and everyone jumped on board.”

Wave after wave of Sharks pinned the Kings into their zone before an energized and raucous sellout crowd of 17,562 at HP Pavilion.

Thornton was an absolute beast, flicking off Kings defenders like they were flies.

“It’s the best I’ve seen him play,” his linemate, Galiardi, said. “I don’t know what he had for pregame meal today, but I hope he has it again in a couple of days. He was flying. And it’s so contagious; when Jumbo’s going, everybody is going. It’s pretty to watch.”

The Sharks kept the Kings hemmed into their zone nearly the entire first period.

“The Kings are spending way more time defending in their own zone than they were a year ago,” a veteran NHL scout said between periods.

Some of that is because the Kings’ back end hasn’t been set the entire season -- with no Willie Mitchell available, Alec Martinez (scratched on this night) struggling to find the form he had last season and Matt Greene having been out most of the season until finally being re-inserted into the lineup Tuesday night.

Whatever the case, the Kings’ blue line, especially the third pairing, just hasn’t had the symmetry and balance it had a season ago.

But credit the Sharks here, as well. They are right on top of the Kings with a speedy forecheck that has bottled up Los Angeles.

It’s incredible how much faster this Sharks team plays compared to a season ago when it went out meekly to the St. Louis Blues in the first round.

“We were more passive last year,” Thornton said. “This year, we’re aggressive. We just play well when we’re aggressive, and that’s probably been the key.”

While the Kings took a while to find their game on this night, it doesn’t help when you’re not getting the calls, either. A quick whistle in the second period robbed the Kings of a goal when it was obvious Antti Niemi did not have it. That should have been a goal for Los Angeles, and it would have cut the lead to 2-1. That would have been a big moment for the Kings.

“It was a quick whistle,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “That stuff tends to even itself out over the course of a year. Sometimes, you get a quick whistle your way. Sometimes, you don't.”

It was a tough call, and these are the type of things that didn’t seem to happen to this Kings team last season. Whether they’re calls from refs or plain breaks, everything seemed to go their way, in large part because they manufactured a lot of that good fortune with their play.

They rolled out to four consecutive 3-0 leads and barely faced any adversity en route to a well-deserved championship.

If they win the Cup again this season, it will be with a much different script.

The Kings head home now, where they’ve won 12 straight and are a perfect 5-0 in these playoffs. That’s a good place to turn this around.

“We're comfortable at home, so I think that's going to be a good thing, and we obviously have confidence there, too,” Richards said. “It's just a matter of playing our game. When we do that, we have success.”

The Kings began to recapture their game in the third period Tuesday night, finding the back of the net on Richards’ power-play goal at 9:46 and outshooting the Sharks 14-2.

“They’re the Stanley Cup champions for a reason,” Thornton said. “They’re going to hang around. In the third period, they played really, really well.”

But in the same fashion, the Kings chalked up being outshot 16-4 in the third period in Game 1 to the Sharks desperately trying to get back in the game, there was a similar feeling Tuesday night to the Kings’ third-period dominance.

“We have to [do] that from the start,” Brown said. “That's the difference in the game. They dominated the play, especially in the first 30 minutes.”

A dandy of a series is now a best of three, with the underdogs believing more than ever they have a chance at dethroning the champs.

“We’re in a good place right now, and it’s only going to get harder,” Boyle said.

A few nights ago in L.A., after the Sharks suffered what seemed like a crushing, Game 2 loss, McLellan confidently told reporters that his team would bounce back. He felt these Sharks were different than in seasons past.

He was right.

“The character in our locker room … you could feel it when we left L.A. on the plane after Game 2,” the Sharks coach said. “We were ready to get back to work.

“We’re going to swing the bat when we’re up there.”