Sharks battle Kings to the bitter end

STAPLES CENTER — After matching every Kings win on home ice with a win of their own, the Sharks just couldn’t go against the series script, losing Game 7 and with it, their chance at a first Stanley Cup.

The defending champion Kings got a pair of goals from Justin Williams to advance to the Western Conference Finals with a 2-1 victory over their California rivals, Tuesday night.

Asked how disappointing this loss was to end their season, San Jose center Logan Couture said:

Sharks center Logan Couture

Video: CSN Bay Area

“It’s heartbreaking. It’s tough. It’s been a long year. We battled hard to get where we were. We made some changes and played a good first round then forced, I think the best team in the league, to seven games and almost beat them in their building. It’s tough to take.”

In every game of this Western Conference semifinals series, the home team that scored first won the game.

Both teams struggled through an intense but scoreless first period.

The first goal came from the Kings at 4:11 in the second period on the power play. Williams jammed in a loose puck from behind the goal line after Niemi failed to secure it.

Then, 2:57 later, Williams scored again with a wrist shot from the left wing to put Los Angeles up 2-0, sending the sellout crowd of 18,593 into a frenzy.

To Sharks captain Joe Thornton, the Sharks bounced back from the emotional letdown of the first goal:

Sharks center Joe Thornton

Video: CSN Bay Area

“A tough bounce. It just happens. The next couple of shifts are very important. They threw that second one in. But we responded well. We fought our hearts out and that’s all you can ask of each other.”

The Sharks made it a game again 5:26 in the third period, when defenseman Dan Boyle netted the puck from the blue line, assisted by Joe Pavelski. They would dominate the remainder of the period but not get a puck past skilled Kings goalie Jonathan Quick.

This final game — like the entire series — was close. Pavelski explained:

Sharks center Joe Pavelski

Video: CSN Bay Area

“We had the chances and they got a few more bounces and usually when you’re playing the champs, you’ve got to earn the victory and they got the extra bounce.”

Going into this postseason, the Sharks seemed like a threat to dethrone the Kings after sweeping the third-seeded Vancouver Canucks. Elimination one round later was hard for defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic to stomach:

Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic

Video: CSN Bay Area

“It sucks, no matter if you make it to round two and lose in Game 7. I could say it was better than last year but it’s still not acceptable to us. We wanted to win but we didn’t do that.”

For Sharks head coach Todd McLellan, though, the outcome reached back farther than Game 7:

Sharks coach Todd McClellan

Video: CSN Bay Area

“We’d love to go back and play Game 2 over again, the last four or five minutes. That’s probably one we needed and didn’t get.”

Game 2 was a demoralizing loss when the Kings shattered a 3-2 San Jose lead in the last couple minutes with back-to-back goals within 22 seconds of each other.

Since home ice determined the winner of the series, the last regular season game between the teams for fifth and sixth seeds was critical, McLellan reflected:

“I think we played a best of eight series. The last game of the regular season was a 3-2 loss for us. We could have earned home ice. Who knows if we would have had it different.”

Now the Kings advance to the Western Conference finals and face the winner Wednesday of a tied series between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings.

A bright spot for the Sharks — the reason they whizzed past Vancouver and got to Game 7 against the Kings — was goalie Antti Niemi. McLellan said:

“He’s our team MVP for a reason.”

But beyond a single player, the coach saw potential in a team that came together throughout the season:

“I thought the way they banded together, the way they played for each other and with each other was a really positive sign for our organization—not only in the playoffs, but moving forward.”

Notes

Thornton had zero shots on goal. Patrick Marleau, one shot on goal. … F Martin Havlat missed the final four games of the series and six of seven overall. … This was the first Game 7 hosted by the Kings since 1989 when Wayne Gretzky scored a hat trick to beat the Edmonton Oilers at the Forum in Inglewood. … Celebrities Tom Cruise and David and Victoria Beckham were in attendance watching from the first two rows along the glass.