Sharks loose with Game 7 looming

— -- SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Joe Thornton flew in on a 2-on-1 break and wristed a shot just inside the post Tuesday, igniting a mock celebration from the San Jose Sharks captain as he skated by teammates.

If anything, the Sharks were a loose bunch on the eve of a game that looms as large as few others in the franchise's decade-long run as a contender.

If the Sharks were nervous about being one loss to the Los Angeles Kings away from becoming only the fourth team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead, it wasn't showing Tuesday.

"When this team is really going good, we're a loose group, we're a fun group, and we're a confident group," Thornton said after a very short practice. "We showed that today, and I think everybody is looking forward to tomorrow."

That message was certainly evident Tuesday: Game 7 is a special opportunity in the NHL playoffs, a chance to make unforgettable memories.

It's the same approach the Sharks took in May 2011 when a 3-0 series lead to Detroit needed a Game 7 home win to prevent catastrophe.

To San Jose's credit, the Sharks played one whale of game that night, Thornton and Patrick Marleau in particular, in a 3-2 win over the Red Wings.

No question that memory is a useful one now.

"Really, really exciting game," Thornton said of that win over Detroit. "All Game 7s, you remember. They're always fun games to be a part of, especially at home. It's going to be a real exciting game to be a part of."

Losing a seven-game series to the 2012 Cup champion Kings would be nothing to be ashamed of in itself. After all, most people picked the Kings to win this series. Most people felt no matter the winner, this would be a long series.

So the fact the Kings and Sharks are playing Game 7 would have been the least surprising piece of foreshadowing had the hockey gods revealed that tidbit before the series began.

It's how the series played out, of course, that casts such a huge shadow over a franchise that has been much maligned for past playoff losses.

As we've often stated in this very space, the Sharks' reputation as playoff puffs is not entirely fair. This is a team that has played in three conference finals over the past decade and played the second-most playoff games behind only Detroit since 2004.

But fair or not, the perception is of an ultra-talented squad that leaves you wanting more every spring, one that should have gained at least one trip to the Cup finals in the past 10 years.

Blend in the 2006 second-round loss to No. 8 seed Edmonton, the second-round loss in 2008 to No. 5 seed Dallas (when the Sharks were No. 2 seeds) and the 2009 first-round defeat to No. 8 Anaheim when the Sharks were the Presidents' Trophy winners, and those results tarnish a solid 10-year playoff run that many franchises would take any day.

The back-to-back conference finals trips in 2010 and 2011 helped bolster San Jose's playoff image, especially via the strong performances from Thornton and Logan Couture in particular.

But after petering out in the first round in 2012 to St. Louis and losing a tough, evenly played seven-gamer to the Kings in the second round last spring, many people are back again to questioning whether the Sharks have what it takes to really win a Cup.

Blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Kings would indict the Sharks beyond repair in some people's minds, even if the series pitted two Cup contenders right out of the gate.

Three years ago, when the Sharks nearly blew a 3-0 series lead to Detroit, it was Marleau who produced the game winner, a perfect script given the individual criticism he has taken over the years come playoff time.

The veteran winger, a terrific performer for Team Canada in Sochi this year, said Tuesday that the message in the room was a positive one ahead of Wednesday's Game 7.

"Just one of the things that we worked hard all season to have a Game 7 on home ice,'' said the soft-spoken Marleau. "We want to take full advantage of that with our home crowd. It doesn't really matter how we got here, but we're here now, to go out and enjoy it and have fun with it."

Two key areas the Sharks must shore up in order to win Wednesday night:

1. Tighten up defensively: The Sharks over the past few games are giving up way too many odd-man chances, playing into the Kings' hands. L.A. was the stingiest team in the NHL this season. Forget that they scored 13 goals on them in the opening two games. The Kings are back to being the Kings. So be patient. Don't force things offensively and produce turnovers.

2. Get better goaltending: Antti Niemi gave way to backup Alex Stalock for the Game 6 start, and while Stalock was OK, in the end it wasn't good enough. Head coach Todd McLellan wouldn't tip his hand Tuesday, telling the media that he told both goalies to be ready for a Game 7 start. It probably makes sense to return to the more experienced and Cup-winning Niemi, but he's going to need to be much better than he was in Games 4 and 5 for the Sharks to prevail.

Because one thing is for sure, Kings netminder Jonathan Quick is back to being the money goalie we all know him to be. The Sharks won't get any easy ones on him Wednesday.

The Kings, now looking again like the made-for-playoffs machine they've been the past few years, well, they smell blood. Who's betting against them now?

A win Wednesday night does not salvage the season for the Sharks. They'll be judged on how they fare against the Anaheim Ducks, too, next round.

But a loss Wednesday night would be a crushing blow to the reputation of an organization that has done so many things right for a decade.

No, this isn't your run-of-the-mill Game 7, folks.