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Sharks welcome in Kings to start California battle

by Brian Hunter
KINGS (46-30-6) at SHARKS (48-25-9)


Last 10:
Los Angeles 6-4-0; San Jose 7-2-1

Season series:
Rivals not only in the Pacific Division but as co-residents of the state of California, these teams split their six regular-season games, although two of the Kings' victories took a shootout to decide. Dustin Brown of Los Angeles led all scorers with 4 goals, while Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi each had 3 goals for San Jose. Except for the first meeting, with saw Jonathan Bernier oppose Antero Niittymaki, the goaltending matchup in each game has pitted Jonathan Quick against Antti Niemi, the expected Game 1 starters.

Big story:
For just the third time in NHL history, two teams from the Golden State face off against one another in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Sharks come in having won the Pacific for a fourth consecutive season and looking to begin the journey to the first Final appearance in franchise history. The Kings are in the playoffs for the second straight spring, but they scuffled down the stretch after losing leading scorer Anze Kopitar for the season following right ankle surgery.

Team Scope:

Kings: Minus Kopitar, Brown and Justin Williams become co-leading scorers for Los Angeles, which hopes to have the latter make his return from a shoulder injury that cost him the final nine games of the regular season. The Kings dropped to the seventh seed after getting swept in a home-and-home by the Ducks on the final weekend, scoring just a single goal in each defeat. The team scored only 12 goals over the last seven games and could benefit greatly from Williams' return, even though it figures to be at less than full strength.

"He's got the green light. It's 100 percent," coach Terry Murray said after Tuesday's practice. "His strength is great. He did all the testing. The only restriction would be because of the shoulder harness that he's wearing. Scratching the top of your head is basically what he couldn't do."

After having the bulls-eye squarely on their backs for the past few postseasons, the emergence of Vancouver as a Stanley Cup favorite has seemingly taken some of the pressure off San Jose, an immensely successful franchise over the past decade that is still looking to bring home a championship. Their goalie has a ring, though, and Niemi actually surpassed his win total with Chicago as a rookie, starting 34 consecutive games at one point and finishing with 35 victories. He tuned up with 35 saves in a 3-1 win over Phoenix in the regular-season finale.

"Wow, was he good," coach Todd McLellan said. "When we made mistakes, he was there to make some tremendous saves. I thought the guy at the other end, [Ilya] Bryzgalov, was also very good. That's playoff goaltending"

Who's hot:
Ryan Smyth had the only goal in each of the Kings' losses to the Ducks to conclude the regular season. … Niemi won five of his last six starts, giving up two goals or less each time. He's 9-1-1 in his last 11 starts. Ian White, who hadn't scored a goal in his first 21 games with the Sharks, enters having lit the lamp in consecutive games.

Injury report: If Williams plays, Los Angeles will be as healthy as its going to get anytime soon. … San Jose forward Ryane Clowe, who missed the final three games of the regular season with a lower-body injury, expects to play Thursday. Defenseman Kent Huskins, on injured reserve since late February with an upper-body injury, could return at some point during the series.

Stat pack:
If this series comes down to special teams, it's hard to say who will have the advantage. The Sharks tied for second on the power play (23.5 percent), but the Kings were fourth in penalty-killing (85.5 percent). On the flip side, the Sharks were a dismal 24th in penalty-killing (79.6 percent), but the Kings were just 21st on the power play (16.1 percent).

Puck drop:
San Jose was also involved in the most recent all-California playoff meeting, and it didn't turn out well. After winning the Presidents' Trophy in 2009, the Sharks were eliminated in six games by eighth-seeded Anaheim in the opening round.

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