With the Sharks and Kings beginning their first-round series in San Jose on Thursday, here are burning questions facing the California rivals; questions, which when answered, should go a long way in dictating which team wins the series.
What Impact Will Home-Ice Advantage Have On The Series?
When the Sharks met the Kings in the 2013 playoffs, home-ice advantage was one of the main reasons that Los Angeles eliminated San Jose, as all seven contests in the grueling series were won by the home team.
This season, however, it’s the Sharks who have home-ice advantage for their playoff matchup with the Kings.
While home-ice advantage should definitely benefit the Sharks, it also puts an extra onus on them to get off to a fast start in the series. Because if San Jose is not able to win each of the first two games in the series, Los Angeles would snatch back home-ice advantage and once again force the Sharks to win at least once at Staples Center in order to advance.
Not to mention, a Los Angeles win in San Jose early in the series could give the Kings confidence that they can win at SAP Center again. Combining this with Los Angeles having won seven straight games (including playoffs) at Staples Center against San Jose and the home team having won 20 of the last 22 games between these teams overall, it makes it even more important for the Sharks to get off to a fast start and maintain the home-ice advantage that their 111-point regular season earned them.
If it’s so crucial for the Sharks to get off to a quick start to maintain their home-ice advantage, the objective for the Kings has to be to somehow steal one of the series’ first two games in Silicon Valley and put themselves back in the driver’s seat heading back to Southern California.
However, until Los Angeles wins a game in San Jose, the Sharks will remain firmly in the driver’s seat in this series themselves, as only winning its home games would be enough to send San Jose to the second round.
But, as much pressure as this puts on the Sharks to get off to a strong start and win their first two home games, the Kings will face just as much pressure – if not more – to win all three of their potential home games. Because even a single loss in LA for the Kings would force them to win twice in San Jose, which seems pretty unlikely considering the Sharks’ Western Conference-leading 29-7-5 home record this season.
Can Sharks Goaltending Edge Out LA'S Jonathan Quick?
You’d be hard pressed to ever find a hockey team complain about having two capable goalies like the Sharks have in Antti Niemi
and Alex Stalock
However, with Stalock unexpectedly emerging from the AHL to post a better goals-against average (1.87) and save percentage (.932) than reigning Vezina Trophy nominee Niemi this season, San Jose is thrust into a spot where it may not have a single guy who is “clearly” the team’s best choice to start between the pipes.
Goalie - SJS
GAA: 2.39 | Sv%: .913
Although Sharks head coach Todd McLellan hasn’t tipped his hand as of yet, the conventional wisdom suggests that San Jose will start its playoff run with Niemi, a 2010 Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks. The rationale behind this would be that the Sharks would start the playoffs with their far more established and experienced puck stopper, while maintaining the option of seamlessly transitioning to a stingy Stalock if need be.
Regardless of who’s between the pipes, the fortunate thing for the Sharks is that the team is strong enough in 5-on-5 play, and on special teams, that it probably doesn’t quite need a goalie to steal wins for it. Mainly, San Jose needs either Niemi or Stalock to cleanly emerge and solidify the team as capable at the position, since the Kings have the best average shots for/against ratio in the League and anything but strong Sharks goaltending could allow Los Angeles’ usually favorable shots ratio to turn into a favorable goals ratio.
Unlike the Sharks, there is little doubt who will be the top goalie for the Kings in the series, with 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy-winner Jonathan Quick having firmly established himself as one of the better goalies in the sport.
Goalie - LAK
GAA: 2.07 | Sv%: .915
While the Kings don’t have questions as to who will start in goal like the Sharks do, Los Angeles, unlike San Jose, is probably going to require its goalie to steal at least a few games for a chance to win the series.
The necessity of an MVP-caliber performance from Quick is made even clearer by the fact that the Kings’ 206 goals scored during the regular season were far and away the lowest total of any playoff team. The idea being that the overall offensive inconsistencies the Kings have had the past several seasons make it unlikely that Los Angeles would stand a chance in any series against San Jose that turned into an offensive track meet, or where it didn’t have its goalie perform nearly flawlessly.
What The Lineups May Look Like
Between Tomas Hertl
missing over three months following knee surgery, Logan Couture
missing over six weeks with a hand injury and both Martin Havlat
and Raffi Torres
missing lengths of time with a variety of ailments, the Sharks haven’t really had a completely healthy roster the entire season.
Heading into the playoffs, however, may be the healthiest the team has been in months.
This development provides Todd McLellan with numerous options, despite the following having been the most commonly used line combinations since Hertl returned to the lineup on April 11 against Colorado.
Joe Pavelski- Joe Thornton- Brent Burns
Patrick Marleau- Logan Couture- Marty Havlat
Tommy Wingels- James Sheppard-Tomas Hertl
Mike Brown-Andrew Desjardins-Tyler Kennedy
Matt Nieto- Bracken Kearns
Out: Adam Burish, Raffi Torres
Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Jason Demers
Dan Boyle-Matt Irwin
Brad Stuart-Justin Braun
Scott Hannan-Matt Tennyson
Adding in that Raffi Torres has resumed practice with the team and could be placed nearly anywhere on San Jose’s forward lines should he see action in the series, the Sharks suddenly find themselves with an abundance of options.
If McLellan chooses, he could transfer Hertl back on to the wing with Thornton and Burns, reuniting a trio that meshed well together earlier in the season. Doing this could also allow McLellan to position Pavelski as the “third line center” in a manner that would spread the offense out and give the Sharks three very potent scoring units – not to mention, perhaps making the Sharks the only team in League history to have a 40-goal scorer on its third line.
Similar to the Sharks, the Kings will enter the playoffs as a fairly healthy squad.
Where depth plays a role with the Kings is that they have several players who had sub-par – by their own standards – offensive seasons who will need to pick up the pace for Los Angeles to have an attack that can even approach San Jose’s depth.
Marian Gaborik-Anze Kopitar-Justin Williams
Jeff Carter-Mike Richards-Jordan Nolan
Dwight King-Jarret Stoll-Dustin Brown
Kyle Clifford-Trevor Lewis-Tyler Toffoli
Jake Muzzin-Drew Doughty
Robyn Regehr-Slava Voynov
Willie Mitchell-Alec Martinez
Assuming the Kings begin the series using the same combinations (above) they finished the season with, two players they may need to make the biggest offensive improvements are Dustin Brown (15g, 12a) and Mike Richards (11g, 30a), who struggled to score most of the season while posting point totals that were roughly half of their career averages.
Besides being a tremendous drop off in production for two usually-dangerous scorers, a struggling Brown/Richards combination creates a Kings roster where only the Kopitar line + Jeff Carter are legitimate offensive threats.
And if the Kings hope to match a Sharks attack that is three or four lines deep, it’s hard to imagine them doing so with contributions from such a small part of their roster. But, if Richards and Brown can score at the same clip they have in past playoff years, Los Angeles can absolutely line three lines up to go head-to-head with San Jose.
How Much Of The Series Will Be Played On Special Teams?
During the regular season, the Sharks’ 15th ranked power play and sixth ranked penalty kill were both clearly superior to the Kings’ 27th ranked power play and 11th ranked penalty kill.
Not only that, San Jose was shorthanded fewer times than any team in the League, and had the best ratio in the League of minutes on the power play versus minutes on the penalty kill.
Given the Sharks’ discipline and advantages on both the power play and penalty kill, it would benefit San Jose to remain disciplined and not get sucked in to taking bad penalties by Los Angeles’ more irritating players.
If the Sharks can avoid taking bad penalties – especially after the whistles – they should be in a position to win the special-teams battle both in terms of goal differential and minutes playing up a man.
One of the Kings’ biggest strengths as a team is grinding physical play that often leads to their opponents taking undisciplined retaliatory penalties. If Los Angeles can drag San Jose into taking uncharacteristically undisciplined penalties, it could help improve a power play/penalty kill ratio that often benefits the Sharks in the head-to-head series.
And if the Kings’ special team units continue to struggle as they did during the regular season, the most basic way to lessen the effects of these deficiencies would be to decrease how much time they spend on special teams.
Tomas Hertl vs. Dustin Brown: In the burgeoning Sharks/Kings rivalry, no moment personified the distaste these franchises have for one another more than Brown’s controversial knee-on-knee hit on Hertl in December that cost San Jose’s sterling young rookie over three months of action – as well as a chance of being the NHL’s rookie of the year.
With Hertl having returned to the Sharks lineup during the final weekend of the regular season, Game 1 on Thursday should be the first time Hertl and Brown are on the ice at the same time since the incident.
Will there be any fireworks?
Will the young Hertl rediscover the scoring touch that had him on pace to score over 30 goals, prior to his injury? Will Hertl be intimidated by the gritty Kings, or will he stand up to them and make them pay on the scoreboard?
Meanwhile, Brown is known as one of the NHL’s feistier players. Will he find himself in the middle of any controversy?
Besides the fall-out of the hit, whether Hertl or Brown produces more offense could sway the series in one direction or the other – despite missing over half the season, Hertl still only had two fewer points (25) than Brown had all year (27).
Where Marty Havlat Fits In: Since joining San Jose in a trade with the Minnesota Wild three years ago, Havlat has never quite gotten into a rhythm due to a series of injuries, both of the serious and nagging variety.
As a result, the 32-year-old Czech sniper has been everything from a scratch to a wing alongside Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau on a top scoring line.
A healthy Havlat playing up to his capabilities – as he did when he recorded a natural hat trick during the last weekend of the season – could be the extra offense the Sharks need to put themselves over the top, wherein an unproductive Havlat would greatly diminish San Jose’s advantage in offensive depth.
Marian Gaborik: Since he was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Matt Frattin and a pair of draft picks on March 5, the veteran Gaborik has found a home playing alongside Anze Kopitar.
In total, Gaborik has chipped in 16 points in 19 games with the Kings, who have gone 11-6-2 in that span.
Right Wing - LAK
Goals: 11 | Assists: 19 | Pts: 30
Shots: 103 | +/-: 7
Perhaps more importantly, though, the style of offense Gaborik provides – unrelenting breakaway speed and a deadly shot – is something a little different than anybody else the Kings already had on their roster.
The combination of Gaborik’s dynamic style of play and skill level puts a different twist on Los Angeles’ roster; a twist that, when productive, makes Gaborik probably more capable than any other King of being a game-breaker in playoff contests that will probably be defined by tight checking and defense.
2013-14 Season Series
10/30/13: SJ 3 at LA 4 (OT)
11/27/13: LA 2 at SJ 3 (SO)
12/19/13: SJ 1 at LA 4
1/27/14: LA 1 at SJ 0
4/3/14: LA 1 at SJ 2
- The Sharks earned five of a possible 10 points, while the Kings earned seven of a possible 10 points.
- The home team won four of the five meetings, with the lone exception being a 1-0 LA win in San Jose in late January that was led by a Jonathan Quick shutout.
- Four of the five games were decided by one goal, after five of the teams’ seven playoff games last season were decided by one goal.
- The Sharks are 7-6 all-time against the Kings in the playoffs; San Jose eliminated Los Angeles in six games in 2011 prior to the Kings ousting the Sharks in seven last season.
An increasingly popular debate in hockey is the importance of advanced stats in predicting hockey teams’ success.
“Corsi” and “Fenwick” are perhaps the two most popular advanced stats, which without getting too technical, attempt to use various combinations of shot differentials and puck possession to forecast long-term on-ice success.
This season, the Kings led the NHL in both Corsi (Sharks were 4th) and Fenwick (Sharks were 3rd), suggesting LA is the League’s preeminent puck possession team.
Despite leading the NHL in defense and overwhelming possession and shot advantage numbers across the board, a major outlying stat in the Kings’ performance is that they converted on just six percent of their shots, with only the cellar-dwelling Buffalo Sabres behind them in that category.
The Sharks, meanwhile, are in the middle of the pack with a 7.5 shooting percentage, which suggests that Los Angeles may need to generate more offensive chances than San Jose to take the series.
The Kings’ stellar Corsi and Fenwick numbers seem to indicate that they will be able to out-chance the Sharks in at least some of the games. But, if the Kings can out-chance the Sharks by enough to win four of seven games remains to be seen…as does the tangible importance of Corsi and Fenwick stats to begin with.
Todd McLellan, following Tuesday’s practice: “We don’t think there will be many surprises in the series. Either ones we present them or ones they, in turn, present us.”
Logan Couture, following Tuesday’s practice: “We know them. They know us. There aren’t going to be any surprises on the ice. We’ve played these guys three of the last four years in the playoffs. California team…our fans don’t like their fans. It’s going to be an entertaining series.”
Tomas Hertl, following San Jose’s 5-1 win over Colorado on 4/11: “It’s more important because it’s LA…I no much like LA this season!”