For the second year in a row the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings will meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last season the two clubs met in the second round where the Kings were able to outlast the Sharks in a seven game series which saw the home team go undefeated.
This time however, the Sharks own home ice advantage and would host a potential Game 7. For those who expect a repeat of home ice dominance, I would say you’re making too easy of an assumption. And what do we do when we assume?
Even though the host city was once again dominant in this year’s regular season series (4-1 record) between the two clubs, only two of the past 12 meaningful meetings have seen the road team fail to play equal to or better than the home team. Both those games were Sharks losses in Los Angeles. The most recent being this past Dec. 19, a Kings 4-1 victory was overshadowed by LA forward Dustin Brown injuring Sharks phenom Tomas Hertl. The other being Game 5 of last year’s playoff series where the Kings controlled the play for most of the night in route to a 3-0 victory.
With that in mind, you can put me down for the road team winning at least two games in this series. It won’t be nearly as simple as writing off the visiting club. These teams know each other so well that the road team is more than capable of winning on any given night. Look for the road warriors to break through at some point in this series.
Let’s move on…
If you want all the particular head-to-head numbers and team rankings, there are plenty of places to find that information, but none of it really matters. The paper numbers say the Kings are 25th in the league in goals for and the Sharks are 7th, so San Jose should win easily right? That’s a much bigger gap than the Kings advantage in goals allowed, No. 1 in the league, versus San Jose being No. 5.
Alas, those numbers can be thrown out the window. We all know this isn’t going to be a cake walk for San Jose by any means. This will be another great series and arguably the most fun to watch in the first round.
You could break down the numbers a million different ways and spin them to one’s particular Sharks or Kings bias, but there isn’t much value in that. However, we can take a look at the key match ups in this series.
Anze Kopitar line vs Logan Couture line.
– In their most recent contest last week, the Sharks and Kings played their prototypical tight-checking, hard-nosed game. There was a lot to like about the way the Kings played even though they lost 2-1. That said, the Kings will need more from the Kopitar line in round one. The Patrick Marleau-Logan Couture-Tommy Wingels line was by far the best San Jose forward group on the evening. If the Kings want to win this series, they will need to win this matchup. A tie or a loss in this head to head will be hard to overcome because of the following two probable match ups.
Joe Thornton + Brent Burns vs Jeff Carter + Mike Richards
-The Kings had Richards and Carter on separate lines in that last contest with the Sharks. Thornton and Burns didn’t generate a whole lot, but they certainly weren’t bad. In last year’s playoff series the Kings had little answer to Thornton and Burns abilities to protect the puck in the corners. And that was with T.J. Galiardi on their left wing. Now they have a healthy Hertl, who will more than likely be back in that spot. Even if LA puts the old Flyers duo back together, San Jose ought to have the advantage here.
Joe Pavelski vs Jarret Stoll
As good as Jarret Stoll is for the Kings, if the Sharks do the wise thing and play Pavelski in the middle, they shift from being really, really good, to nearly unbeatable. Stoll is a solid third line center, Pavelski is a dynamite No. 1 center playing on the third line. Advantage very much in the Sharks favor.
Blue-line: If the Kings are going to win this series they’ll need a healthy Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov at the top of their games. If those two can play lights out at evens, they’ll be more productive than the Sharks defense corps which is currently featuring a top-heavy No. 1 pair in Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jason Demers. Long time Sharks top defenseman Dan Boyle is having an extremely disappointing season and when not paired with Vlasic (which he mostly hasn’t been this year) his pairing has struggled in the defensive zone, something the Kings can look to exploit.
Goaltending: Last season Sharks Antti Niemi was having a Vezina Trophy caliber season and the goaltending match up with Jonathan Quick was a wash. Both goalies were phenomenal in last year’s playoff series. This season however, Niemi has had a significant drop off and with Quick’s knack for turning into Superman in the playoffs, goaltending is most likely to be in the Kings favor. If Los Angeles is to advance, Quick will have to once again be a difference maker. As good as Sharks backup Alex Stalock has been this season, I don’t seem him getting much ice time behind Niemi.
When watching last year’s playoff series between these clubs, the eye ball test tells me the Sharks were the better team in four games and the worse team in just one game. And that was without Martin Havlat, Raffi Torres, Hertl, and Matt Nieto. Pavelski had to play in the top six in that series which severely hurt San Jose’s depth. The Sharks look to be healthier and more dynamic with two impressive rookies added to the mix.
The Kings won last year’s series on strong defensive play and Jonathan Quick stopping everything in sight. He certainly stole the series and he may very well end up doing so again. However, I don’t think it’s going to happen two years in a row. With Hertl back in the lineup and Pavelski at center, give me the Sharks in six games.