The defending Stanley Cup champion Kings got off to a slow start to their title defense, dropping the first two games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals to the St. Louis Blues before roaring back to win the next four. All six games were one-goal results, including two decided in overtime.
The Sharks forged a much simpler path to the conference semifinals, sweeping the Vancouver Canucks, including a pair of overtime wins.
About the only thing you can say for sure regarding this series is to expect close games. Six of the past 10 meetings between the teams have been one-goal games, with four going to overtime.
The Kings scored 12 goals in the first round against the Blues, and second-line forward Jeff Carter had a quarter of them. They also were well-timed. His goal in the first period of Game 4 sparked the Kings' rally from a 2-0 deficit, and his two goals in Game 5 gave the Kings the lead each time.
The second line was the Kings' most effective, as Carter, Mike Richards and Dwight King combined for 10 points. They also eased the burden placed on the top line of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams. Williams had a pair of goals -- including the winner in Game 4 -- and Kopitar and Brown each scored once.
Dustin Penner again showed himself to be a big-time playoff performer, scoring a pair of goals, including the series-winner in Game 6, when his rocket from above the circles beat Brian Elliott with 0.2 seconds left in the second period. The two goals matched Penner's 33-game regular-season output.
Penner could see time with Carter and Richards, or remain at his regular spot on the third line, with Jarrett Stoll and Trevor Lewis. That trio won't be counted on for offense but will be a key checking line.
If healthy, Kyle Clifford will see action on the fourth line, likely with Colin Fraser in the middle. Rookie Tyler Toffoli played on the right side of that trio in Game 6, but options include Jordan Nolan and Brad Richardson.
All four provided a critical play whenever one was needed against the Canucks in the first round. Couture, enjoying a late-night coming-out party, had eight points (three goals), as did Pavelski (four goals). Thornton had six points (one goal), and Marleau added five (four goals), including the overtime goal that ended the first-round sweep.
Pavelski in particular has responded in a big way after going without a point in last year's five-game elimination by the Blues.
Brent Burns continued to thrive on the wing with three points and disruptive size, and Raffi Torres' speed is a dimension the Sharks have lacked in previous years. Scott Gomez returned from injury to play two games, and his experience as a two-time Stanley Cup champion brings stability to the bottom six.
The Sharks did lose top-six forward Martin Havlat in Game 1 (he hasn't practiced since and his return is undetermined), and fourth-liner Adam Burish has an upper-body injury and will not play in this series. That could provide an opportunity for scoring minor-leaguer Bracken Kearns or rugged Matt Pelech, a 6-foot-4, 235-pound converted defenseman who had 238 penalty minutes with Worcester of the American Hockey League this season.
The Kings' anchor is Drew Doughty, who was second among all players in the first round with an average ice time of 28:49 per game. That included 33:37 in the Kings' overtime win in Game 5. The game went 68 minutes, which means Doughty was on the ice for just less than half of it.
And if you think all the ice time is tiring him out, Doughty came back from his big effort in Game 5 to score the opening goal in Game 6.
Robyn Regehr has proven to be the perfect partner for Doughty, covering the defensive zone to allow Doughty to skate with the puck and create offense.
Rob Scuderi and Alec Martinez serve as the Kings' shut-down defense pair, and Jake Muzzin and Game 5 hero Slava Voynov are able to slot in and play solid minutes. Voynov especially was opportunistic offensively against the Blues, scoring a pair of goals on seven shots, still managing a plus-5 rating.
The Kings' strong defensive effort allowed them to limit the Blues to 10 goals in six games in the first round.
The Sharks' game plan of spreading their blue-line minutes among the entire group has become a major benefit.
Each of the six defensemen had at least one point in the first round, with no one averaging more than 23 minutes (Dan Boyle) or fewer than 17 (Scott Hannan). Only Justin Braun (minus-1) was a minus player.
Boyle has picked up his offensive game, with four points in the four games, plus 11 shots on goal (tied for fifth on the team). This is a good sign for San Jose -- when it reached the Western Conference Finals in 2010 and 2011, Boyle had 30 points in 33 games over those two postseasons. He had two in five games last year when the Sharks lost in the first round.
The unit helped limit the Canucks to five goals during the first three games before giving up three in the clincher. Consider: The Sharks never trailed at the end of any period, were behind for a total of 20:38 in four games, and allowed consecutive goals-against twice.
Jonathan Quick got off to a terrible start in the series, when his giveaway handed the Blues the win in Game 1. Rather than crumble, Quick recovered and showcased some of the form that won him the Conn Smythe Trophy last year.
Though he lost as many games in the first round this year as he did in the first three rounds last year (two), his .944 save percentage is minutely below the .946 he totaled during last year's playoff run. And after allowing four goals in the first two games against the Blues, he let in six in the final four, including a 30-save shutout in Game 3 that turned the tide in the series.
Antti Niemi added two overtime wins to his incredible record in those games; he is 11-2 in overtime of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
He lived up to his Vezina Trophy nomination in the first-round sweep, posting a 1.86 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. Those numbers came facing a hefty workload -- he stopped 29, 29, 28 and 32 shots over the four games.
At 29-19 in the playoffs, and with wins in seven of the nine series he's played, Niemi arguably is the best postseason goaltender in the NHL.
Darryl Sutter's calm, seemingly emotion-free attitude has rubbed off on his players. They never panicked when they lost the first two games to the Blues, and never panicked when they got down in games. He's shown confidence in his players, and in return those players have shown faith in the system and style of play Sutter preaches.
The ultimate sign of faith has been in the way the coac has ridden Doughty, and the response has been some of the best hockey of the young defenseman's career.
Everything is going right for Todd McLellan and his streaky team.
He did not have to worry about lineup changes (only Havlat was lost, eventually replaced by Gomez); had no concern about his goalie; watched his special teams operate at a high level; and got two wins on the road.
His team even managed to rise above whatever controversy the Canucks tried to create, whether it was complaints about embellishing penalties or gaining an unfair edge on faceoffs.
The difficulty will be staying as sharp as they were; the Sharks last played May 7 and will have had six days between games when the series starts Tuesday.
In a series that averaged three power plays per game, special teams was a small, but critical part of the Kings' first-round victory. They scored two power-play goals, one by Brown in Game 2 and one by Carter in Game 5. The Kings won the Cup with a power play that ranked 12th of the 16 playoff teams last year, but certainly they'd like to see it produce a bit more in the second round.
The Kings' penalty killers shut down the Blues' power play, allowing two goals on 17 chances. Quick was the unit's best player, stopping 20 of 22 shots when his team was down a man. The Kings' penalty killing was a major force in winning the Cup last year -- it tied for the playoff lead at 92.1 percent -- and with a similar roster playing similar roles, that same level of play will be expected.
It's hard to imagine the Sharks could be playing any better on special teams.
The power play scored on seven of 24 chances (29.2 percent), almost half of the 15 total goals San Jose scored against Vancouver. The top unit of Boyle, Couture, Marleau, Pavelski and Thornton combined for 19 extra-man points.
Shorthanded 10 times during the four games, the Sharks gave up two goals (80 percent). They will have to find a replacement for Burish, part of the second forward group of penalty killers (with Couture). Tommy Wingels would seem to be next in line.
Slava Voynov: The second-year blueliner had a strong first full season in the NHL and carried that play into the first round against the Blues. He jumped into the rush in overtime in Game 5 to score the winning goal, and scored the only goal of Game 3 as the Kings stole momentum in the series. While chipping in offensively, he also managed to post a team-best plus-5 rating. He averaged 21:42 of ice time per game in the first round, showing he's earned the trust of Sutter and the coaching staff.
Raffi Torres -- The hard-hitting forward was moved to a line alongside Couture and Marleau after Havlat was injured, and Torres is making a difference. In addition to scoring the overtime winner in Game 2, his style revived Marleau, who scored three even-strength goals with Torres on the ice after getting one in his final 20 regular-season games. Likely to stay on that line even if Havlat returns, Torres creates matchup problems for any opponent (and, as an aside, he has two minor penalties in his past 21 games).
WHAT IF …
Kings will win if … They continue to play with the confidence of champions. Quick's gaffe in Game 1 could have crushed a lesser player or team, as could falling into a 2-0 series hole. Instead, the players shrugged it off and went to work. This team won't beat itself. Someone will have to outplay them in all phases of the game, which is easier said than done.
Sharks will win if … They keep doing what they've been doing. Their stars have played like stars, with Couture having his breakout moment. Their goalie and special teams have been excellent, the entire team seems focused, and they even learned how to win on the road. With the home-ice success they've had all season, this is a dangerous team.
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