The Series: #2 San Jose Sharks (48-25-9, 105 points) vs. #7 Los Angeles Kings (46-30-6, 98 points)
Regular Season: Although the Sharks dominated the Pacific division to the tune of a 14-5-5 record, these teams actually split the season series 3-3. San Jose bookended the six matches with 6-3 and 6-0 victories while the Kings biggest win came on December 27 when they topped San Jose 4-0.
History: Although they’ve shared a division since the early ’90′s, there really isn’t much of a heated rivalry between the Kings and Sharks. The two franchises have traded off periods of prosperity and decline since San Jose was added to the league without the necessary syncing of “high-times” to render strong competition. With Dean Lombardi’s heated efforts to rebuild the Kings organization and make them into a consistent heavy hitter, this series could be a first step towards newly formed, intra-state hatred.
The Case for San Jose: Remember when they were all sorts of silly explanations for the Sharks early season struggles floating around? Those evaporated rapidly when the percentages bounced back for San Jose in the second half. Antti Niemi grabbing the starters role and channeling an elite goaltender certainly didn’t hurt things either. As was revealed when pucks started going in the net with more regularity, the Sharks are one of the strongest offensive clubs in the league. They have a nice top-end featuring Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley and some better than average depth in potential future Selke nominee Joe Pavelski, the emergent Ryan Clowe and Calder candidate Logan Couture. That collection of players makes San Jose a very good ES club. What puts them over the edge is their truly terrifying PP, which generated the most shots on net in the league during the regular season and it wasn’t even close. As a result, the Sharks boasted the overall biggest shot differential of everyone in the NHL (+5.6/game).
The Case for Los Angeles: In direct contrast to the Sharks, the Kings primary strength is shot and chance prevention. Thanks to their decent overall depth, defense-first strategy and the work of guys like Michal Handzus, Wayne Simmonds, Drew Doughty and Willie Mitchell, the Kings allowed just 2288 shots against this season, good for third best in the NHL. Their penalty kill was also very effective with a success rate of 85.5% (4th overall). Combined with their ability to stay out of the box (266 times short-handed, 10th in the NHL) the Kings surrendered just 40 PP goals against this season, less than any other team. Add in Jonathan Quick, who has a career-best season in terms of GAA (2.24) and save percentage (.918) and you have the reason the Kings made the playoffs despite entirely lackluster offensive numbers.
5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: San Jose, 1.16; Los Angeles, 1.05
PP: San Jose, 23.5 (2nd); Los Angeles, 16.1% (21st)
PK: San Jose 79.6% (24th); Los Angeles, 85.5% (4th)
Goal Differential/Game: San Jose +0.43; Los Angeles +0.26
This series is going to be the unstoppable force (San Jose offense) versus the immovable object (LA defense), particularly on special teams where the two clubs are diametrically opposed. A major problem for the Kings, beyond their generally average attack, is the fact that Anze Kopitar will start the series on IR and Justin Williams is working his way back from an injury. Although Justin Williams is set to return for Game 1, Kopitar is out indefinitely with a broken ankle. The Kings tend to rely on guys like Handzus, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Wayne Simmonds to take on other team’s top-lines, but Kopitar is the club’s most potent weapon and is the focal point of their top-six forward rotation. Despite missing the last seven games of the year, Kopitar led the Kings in scoring with 73 points, 16 more than second place Dustin Brown. No forward played more than Kopitar’s 21+ minutes per night and no one the team managed more shots on net (233).
As a result, the Kings are likely going to need Handzus et al and Drew Doughty to completely shut-down Thornton, Marleau, Heatley. If that works, Kings fans also have to hope their depth can handle the likes of Pavelski, Couture and Clowe.
The Sharks look to have too much firepower to be consistently shut-down. On top of that, the Kings may not have the requisite offense to fight back even if they manage to capably suppress San Jose due to the absence of Kopitar. Unless Quick can pull a Jaroslav Halak and put up a brick wall in the LA crease, the Sharks are the prohibitive favorites in this one. San Jose in five.