With about 2 minutes left in what was already the wackiest game of the season for the Sharks and Kings, Ryane Clowe stood up at the San Jose bench and reached his stick over the boards and onto the ice.
Clowe deftly poked the puck away from Los Angeles’ onrushing Jarret Stoll, who understandably didn’t anticipate this development, then pulled his stick back. Stoll screamed, the Staples Center crowd erupted — but no officials noticed this graceful moment of apparently blatant cheating.
"I don’t remember that play," Clowe said, smiling coyly.
Both teams will remember the Sharks’ 6-5 shootout win over the Kings on Thursday night for much more than this astonishing bit of gamesmanship. Less than a week after San Jose was out of the Western Conference playoff picture, the Sharks are back on top in a three-team race for the Pacific Division title that will go down to the final day of the regular season.
San Jose and Los Angeles clinched playoff berths during the game when Dallas and Colorado lost elsewhere, but the Sharks rallied from a late two-goal deficit and then hung on, with Antti Niemi stopping all three Los Angeles shootout tries.
Joe Pavelski scored the only shootout goal after the teams combined for five goals in the wild third period, and the Sharks pulled even with Los Angeles atop the division with 94 points.
Although Phoenix now has the clearest path to the Pacific crown and the No. 3 seed in the West, San Jose still has a shot at its fifth consecutive division title when the Sharks and Kings finish the regular season Saturday night at the Shark Tank.
"We’ve had a tough month and a half, but we’ve won games we’ve really had to win," San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. "That’s the sign of a strong team. … I knew there was going to be a lot of emotion. I thought it was going to be a hard game. I didn’t anticipate us scoring five. I didn’t count on us giving up five as well."
Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Clowe each had a goal and an assist for the Sharks in a phenomenal game between California rivals featuring seven power-play goals, multiple fights and two rough goaltending performances.
"That was a crazy game, man," Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle said. "Down 3-1, we battled back. They got another one. We took the lead. It was a pretty entertaining game for the fans, and it was a hard-fought win. We showed a lot of character."
They’ll need more character and more luck to stay in front of the Kings or the Coyotes. Phoenix has 93 points, one behind Los Angeles and San Jose, but has two games left — at St. Louis and Minnesota.
Thornton, Clowe and Marleau scored during a 5 1/2-minute surge starting late in the second period, erasing the Kings’ two-goal lead before Marty Havlat put the Sharks ahead. Jason Demers scored an early goal for the Sharks, and Niemi made 31 saves.
Jonathan Quick stopped 26 shots while allowing five goals for the first time in his All-Star season for Los Angeles. Stoll snapped a 33-game goal drought with a second-period score, while Justin Williams had two goals, and Alec Martinez and captain Dustin Brown also scored.
Anze Kopitar matched Willie Mitchell’s career-high three assists, but the Kings couldn’t hold a late lead in their biggest regular-season game in several years.
"It was definitely the weirdest game of the year," Stoll said. "It was disappointing, just getting one point. We just didn’t get the job done on the (penalty kill). … It’s always a battle for us, so now we’re going to have to go in there and play a good road game like we’ve done all year. We’ve won in tough buildings, and it’s no different here."
Havlat put the Sharks ahead on a power-play goal with 7:23 to play, but Williams tied it for Los Angeles with his second goal of the third period during a two-man advantage with 3:31 left.
The proceedings then turned bizarre with about 2 minutes left in regulation when Stoll broke down the ice on a rush near the Sharks’ bench — and Clowe pulled a stunt that will live on for years in this hopping rivalry.
"I have no idea what you guys are talking about," Clowe said. "I’ll have to see the video or something. Someone show me the video."
None of the officials apparently noticed what television cameras and thousands of booing Kings fans clearly saw, allowing the game to continue without a whistle until regulation ended.
"I don’t see why he shouldn’t (get suspended)," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "To me, that’s like a guy running down the football field and a guy comes out and tackles him to keep him from getting a touchdown. I don’t see how this is any different. Maybe the refs didn’t see it, but I wouldn’t blame them full-out. It’s hard to see things like that, especially a stick reaching over the bench."
Los Angeles, which had won nine of 12 to surge into the division lead, now needs help to win just the second division title in the franchise’s 44-year history.
NOTES: The Kings played their fourth straight game without power forward Jeff Carter, who thinks he’ll return from his ankle injury for the postseason. … Thornton completed a Gordie Howe hat trick with his assist on Marleau’s goal. … Kopitar set a career high with his 49th assist on Martinez’s goal. He has a five-game points streak.