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Sharks take 2-1 series lead thanks to one of the biggest comebacks in playoff history

Apr 20, 2011, 3:00 AM EDT

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Pretty much since Joe Thornton joined the San Jose Sharks, they’ve been called chokers. It’s going to be awfully tough for anyone to advance that argument again after they pulled off one the most stunning comebacks in playoff history.

That’s not hyperbole, either; the Sharks become only the fourth team in playoff history to come back from at least a 4-0 deficit and win. Here are the three other games, with scores and dates thanks to Versus.

* – Minnesota 5, Chicago 4 (OT) on April 28, 1985.
* – Los Angeles 6, Edmonton 5 (OT) on April 10, 1982.
* – Montreal 7, Boston 5 on April 8, 1971.

San Jose 6, Los Angeles 5 (OT); Sharks lead the series 2-1

No doubt about it, this is a devastating loss of the Kings. In the framework of this series, Los Angeles has some serious “What ifs” to fight through. After losing Game 1 after making their own comeback, the Kings lost on Devin Setoguchi‘s beauty in OT in Game 3. In other words, they could be up 3-0 rather than down 2-1.

From a historic perspective, it’s even more unusual. In case you’re not aware, the Kings were on the winning end of an enormous and improbable comeback in 1982. Almost 30 years ago, the Kings managed to beat the Wayne Gretzky Edmonton Oilers in OT after falling behind 5-0.

As thrilling as tonight’s win was for the Sharks, they might need to worry a bit about Antti Niemi‘s psyche. He allowed the Kings to take another early lead as Willie Mitchell scored an awful goal on him and Kyle Clifford made it 2-0 just 13 seconds later. Michal Handzus gave them a 3-0 late in the first period, which seemed like a tremendous lead since the Sharks only scored three goals combined in the last two games.

An unforgettable, seven-goal second period.

After building that 3-0 lead through the first, Brad Richardson chased Niemi from the net just 44 seconds into the middle frame.

Despite showing obvious rust after only appearing in four Sharks games since New Year’s, Antero Niittymaki did just enough to survive, stopping 11 out of 12 shots in relief of Niemi.

The goaltending change and slowly gathering momentum helped the Sharks put together one of the most ridiculous 20 minutes of hockey in recent memory. Patrick Marleau batted in a great pass from Dan Boyle for the Sharks’ first goal, Ryan Clowe scored on the power play three minutes later and they made things beyond interesting when Logan Couture scored.

Yet 15 seconds later, Ryan Smyth scored on a great Jarret Stoll pass thanks to a defensive lapse by the Sharks.

Perhaps the “choking” edition of the Sharks would have used this opportunity to fold, but this new edition has enough depth to spread out the responsibility during this improbable comeback. These Sharks just kept coming in that second period, as Clowe scored his second goal of the game with a minute and a half remaining and Joe Pavelski tied it up with about 30 seconds left.

Keep in mind all seven of those goals came in the second period, after a 3-0 first period for the Kings.

A rugged third period and a quick overtime.

Surely both coaches gave their teams a tongue-lashing in the second intermission, as the two teams played the kind of tight, contentious hockey that was expected from this series. The third period went scoreless.

That gave way to a high-pressure overtime that didn’t last long, as Setoguchi made no mistake about delivering on a perfect Marleau pass. After all that activity, the Sharks won 6-5 in overtime and left the Kings stunned in the process.

Big questions for both teams.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Sharks react to this situation. Will they stick with Niemi – a goalie they clearly believe is their franchise guy – even though he’s allowed eight goals on 33 shots in the last two contests?

Of course, the biggest question is how the Kings will respond to this brutal loss. If Terry Murray can keep them from getting too down, they can still win this series. They didn’t really roll over in this game, as evidenced by that rugged third period and Smyth’s 5-3 goal. If nothing else, they know they can score on this team without Anze Kopitar and skate with a great team. It’s small solace now, but they can tie it up on Thursday.

As bad as this game was for Niemi, Jonathan Quick must also bounce back from this game, even if he had no chance on most of those goals. One has to wonder if the Kings’ underrated, steady young goalie can shake this one off.

We learned a lot about the Sharks tonight, but we’ll find out a lot about Los Angeles in Game 4.

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