Hockey in California has come a long way since Wayne Gretzky arrived in Los Angeles almost 23 years ago following a trade from Edmonton. At the 2010 Entry Draft, held at the Staples Center, Emerson Etem and Beau Bennett became the first California natives ever to be taken in the first round.
Now, for the first time, all three California-based teams are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the same time -- and two of them will square off in an intriguing 2-versus-7 matchup.
At this point, the San Jose Sharks are a known commodity, a perennial Cup contender that has yet to reach the Final. They made it to the Western Conference Finals last season, got swept by the eventual champion Blackhawks, then decided if you can't beat him, sign him, and inked goalie Antti Niemi to a contract after salary cap-strapped Chicago walked away from his arbitration award. Niemi has been a rock in net and the Sharks' potent offense is a frightening prospect for opposing defenses and goaltenders.
After ending a long playoff drought last spring, the Los Angeles Kings are set to build off the experience they gained from a six-game, first-round loss to the Canucks. Unfortunately, a pair of key injuries down the stretch to Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams has left them shorthanded up front. Whether the Kings have enough depth up front to overcome those losses will go a long way in determining if they are the California team left standing at the end of this series.
The Sharks finished sixth in the League as they scored 248 goals for the season (3.02 per game). San Jose also makes its opposing goalie work, as it led the NHL with 34.5 shots per contest.
At the start of the season, the talk revolved around the Sharks' Big Three -- Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley. It didn't take long for the club to realize there was also a new kid on the block.
Logan Couture, 22, made his presence felt almost immediately and carried it through until the end of the season as the rookie finished second on the Sharks with 32 goals to help them win their fourth-straight Pacific Division title. Indeed, it was easy to see why San Jose opted to use the No. 9 pick at the 2007 Entry Draft on Couture.
Meanwhile, the Sharks' Big Three enjoyed another fine season, as the trio combined for 207 points while Marleau paced the club with 37 goals. A huge key was health -- Marleau, Thornton and Heatley all appeared in more than 75 games.
Not lost in the shuffle was the play of Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe, who each enjoyed solid seasons to help the Sharks enter the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs boasting five 60-point scorers.
There's no denying the Kings enter the playoffs depleted up front. Leading scorer Anze Kopitar is lost for the season with a severe ankle injury and Justin Williams, tied for second on the team in points, is dealing with a dislocated shoulder.
Williams could be available at some point in the first round, but he wouldn't be at 100 percent and would have to wear a harness to play.
For the Kings to advance, they'll need their secondary scorers to step up. Captain Dustin Brown (28 goals, 57 points) will be counted on heavily for timely goals. So will Dustin Penner, who has scored at least 29 goals in a season twice. He has just 23 this season and 2 in 19 games since joining the Kings at the trade deadline.
Perhaps the most important player will be 24-year-old rookie center Trevor Lewis (3 goals, 13 points). He's seen time on the Kings' top line since Kopitar went down and may have to be an offensive factor for the Kings to advance.
The Sharks suffered a huge blow when Rob Blake announced his retirement after last season; but, as expected, veteran Dan Boyle filled in admirably. Not only did the 34-year-old lead all San Jose blueliners with 50 points (9 goals, 41 assists), but he also averaged more than 26 minutes of ice time per game.
Boyle will likely be paired with Douglas Murray, a hard-hitting Swede who provides plenty of stability in the Sharks' end of the ice.
Jason Demers, who bounced back and forth between San Jose and AHL Worcester last season, became a mainstay on the Sharks' blue line in 2010-11. The 22-year-old appeared in more than 70 games and led San Jose with an impressive plus-19 rating. Demers has been skating alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic, a reliable 24-year-old who is averaging close to 21 minutes per game.
The third pairing in San Jose consists of veterans Ian White -- who was acquired from Carolina in February for a second-round draft pick -- and Niclas Wallin, a 36-year-old veteran who helped the Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup in 2006 and reach the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009.
The strength of this team is its defense. Along the blue line, the Kings have a lot of reliable, talented players who can both shut down opponents and chip in offensively.
Drew Doughty, a Norris Trophy finalist last season, had 11 goals and 40 points in his third NHL season. It's a steep drop from his 59 points last season, but he's still a dangerous scorer who can deliver a bone-jarring hit when it's needed.
Jack Johnson (5 goals, 42 points) is another young defenseman with scoring prowess. While he's enjoying a career-season offensively, he will finish as a minus-player for the fourth-straight season and is minus-77 in his career.
The plan at the start of the season in San Jose was for Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki to share the goaltending duties. Niemi, though, had other plans.
After helping the Chicago Blackhawks win their first Stanley Cup since 1961, Niemi signed a one-year deal with the Sharks this past summer and then was armed with a four-year extension before the final month of the regular season.
The Finnish netminder started 34 consecutive games down the stretch for the Sharks and reached the 30-win plateau for the first time in his young career. Considering the success he enjoyed last postseason, Niemi seems to be the perfect replacement for Evgeni Nabokov, who left as a free agent over the summer.
The Kings have one of the better 1-2 combos in the League, but Jonathan Quick is the undisputed No. 1.
Quick made 60 starts and finished with a 2.24 goals-against average and .918 save percentage, ranking him among the best in the League. He had a rough go of it in his playoff debut last season against the Vancouver Canucks, posting a 3.50 goals-against average and .884 save percentage in six games. But that experience can only help him this season.
Should Quick falter again, the Kings have a very capable backup in Jonathan Bernier. A first-round pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, Bernier went 11-8-3 with a 2.48 GAA and .913 save percentage and made 22 starts.
Todd McLellan hasn't accomplished his goal yet of bringing a Stanley Cup to San Jose, but the former Red Wings assistant has racked up 152 victories in his first three seasons behind the Sharks' bench. He's only the second coach in NHL history to accomplish such a feat, joining Mike Keenan, who also won 152 in his first three seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers. McLellan is bright, articulate and driven -- three qualities that have many believing this franchise may finally win its first Stanley Cup.
Terry Murray is an experienced, defensive-minded coach, something that will be important with the Kings forced to play without their top scorers. He's known more as a teacher, but he's been to the conference finals twice and the Stanley Cup Final once.
Put the Sharks on the power play and they will make you pay. They finished tied for second in the NHL at 23.5 percent, as Marleau, Heatley, Pavelski and Couture all had 10 goals or more on the power play.
San Jose's penalty kill struggled this season as it finished near the bottom at 79.6 percent. The Sharks will need to play a disciplined game during the postseason and, when down a man, do a better job of winning faceoffs and quickly clearing the puck out of their own end.
The power play was ranked No. 21 at 16.1 percent, but the penalty-killing unit was ranked No. 4 at 85.5 percent. The problem with those numbers is they were amassed with Kopitar logging a lot of special-teams minutes. The power play went 1-for-23 in seven games without Kopitar and the penalty-killing unit allowed 3 goals in 15 chances.
Joe Pavelski, San Jose -- As we all witnessed last year, the American forward picks up his game during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Just a few months after helping Team USA win a silver medal at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, Pavelski played a huge role in San Jose's run to the conference finals. In 15 postseason games, Pavelski had 9 goals and 8 assists. His 17 points led the club. Three of his 9 goals were game-winners.
Drew Doughty, Los Angeles -- When he's at his best, he can control a game from the blue line. Last year against the Canucks, he had 3 goals and 4 assists in six games and at times was a force. He leads the Kings in ice time (25:38) and has the ability to control the game. He'll need to be sharp and potentially log 28 minutes a game for the Kings to have a chance.
Sharks will win if ... They live up to their capabilities. Given the amount of talent up front and between the pipes, there's no reason why this can't be the start of a long postseason run.
Kings will win if... They get timely scoring. Defense shouldn't be a problem, so if they will need to get some clutch goals from the likes of Penner, Brown and Smyth.