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Sharks vs Kings First Round: Series Preview

by Staff Writer / San Jose Sharks

The San Jose Sharks know they will have to exorcise all of the ghosts of playoffs past if they are to win the Stanley Cup in 2016. They face their most difficult one in the Western Conference First Round: The Los Angeles Kings.

The Sharks did not make the postseason in 2015, but in each of the previous two years, the Kings put a painful end to San Jose's title dreams.

In 2013, the Sharks played the Kings in the second round. The home team won each game; the higher-seeded Kings advanced with a 2-1 victory in Game 7 at Staples Center. It was the fifth one-goal game in one of the most evenly matched series in recent memory.

As painful as that loss was, the Kings found a way to inflict even more heartache in 2014. The Sharks took a 3-0 lead in their Western Conference First Round series and were poised to knock off their Southern California rival. Instead, the Kings found life in a 6-3 win in Game 4 and ran the table, outscoring the Sharks 12-2 in the final three games.

Now they meet again, seemingly as evenly matched as ever. The Kings finished with 102 points to earn second place in the Pacific Division. San Jose had 98 and finished third.

San Jose won four of five games during the regular season, outscoring the Kings 18-13. But none of that matters in the playoffs, as the Kings have proven twice in the past three seasons.

For the Sharks, all that matters during the next two weeks is being one game better than Los Angeles and putting the curse of the Kings behind them.

FORWARDS

Kings: Los Angeles was a top-heavy team for much of the season, riding centers Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter while many of the other forwards struggled.

Kopitar led the Kings in scoring for the ninth straight season, drew the top defensive assignments and will likely get votes for the Selke Trophy. When coach Darryl Sutter needs to get another player going, he usually puts him with Kopitar.

Carter was slowed by an upper-body injury in December and his production dipped, but he's their best finisher and still managed to be a 20-goal scorer. The line of Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Milan Lucic was the Kings' best toward the end of the season.

Toffoli became the Kings' first 30-goal scorer since Kopitar in 2008-09. Tenacious on the boards and skilled around the net, Toffoli's numbers are reflective of his offensive instincts in full bloom.

Lucic initially struggled to adjust to a new team in a new conference, but he eventually became the tough power forward the Kings envisioned when they acquired him from the Boston Bruins last summer. He finished with 20 goals and 55 points. Tanner Pearson had bouts of inconsistency, especially when they needed him to help fill the void left by Marian Gaborik, who is expected to return from a sprained knee that has kept him out since Feb.12. Pearson had streaks of 10 and 14 games without a goal, but remains one of their better forecheckers and finished with a career-high 15 goals.

Vincent Lecavalier invigorated the offense after arriving in January by scoring five goals in his first 11 games as a King. He provides depth at center and another veteran for a playoff run.

Captain Dustin Brown was invisible for long stretches and at times was relegated to a bottom-six role.


Sharks: San Jose is one of the NHL's highest-scoring teams in large part because of a deep and skilled group of forwards, led by first-line center Joe Thornton and right wing Joe Pavelski.

At age 36, Thornton (19 goals, 63 assists, 82 points) turned back the clock and had his best season since putting up 89 points in 2009-10. He's still one of hockey's best passers, but has become such a force defensively that he's been mentioned as a possible Selke Trophy candidate. Thornton was also one of the NHL's top point producers during the final three months of the season.

Pavelski (38-40-78), in his first season as captain, had at least 30 goals and 30 assists for the fourth time in his career and had more than 70 points for the third straight season. Pavelski has led by example on the ice, doing his best work in the tough areas in front of the net. Off the ice, he has been an even more vocal leader now that he wears the "C."

After spending time as a center earlier in the season, Tomas Hertl was moved to left wing on the top line and has thrived with Thornton and Pavelski. His 21 goals are a career high, and he's learned to take better advantage of his 6-foot-2, 215-pound body in front of the net.

The Sharks struggled early in the season in part because Logan Couture missed 30 games with a broken leg, then a thigh injury and internal bleeding. He had surgery twice. After Couture returned and became a fixture as the second-line center on Dec. 30, the Sharks went 8-2-1 in their next 11 games and began a serious playoff push. Their depth down the middle with Thornton, Couture, Patrick Marleau and Chris Tierney has created mismatches.

San Jose's forward group is much deeper than it was a year ago, enabling coach Peter DeBoer to roll four lines and keeping his top forwards fresh. The Sharks signed former Washington Capitals right wing Joel Ward during the offseason, adding a solid veteran with 517 games of NHL experience. He finished with 21 goals and 22 assists, adding valuable secondary scoring.

"I think we've got a great group in here that's capable of doing a lot of great things," Ward said. "Just excited to see what happens in the postseason. There's a lot of guys that could step up at any time."

The Sharks added veteran depth on Nov. 24 when they signed forward Dainius Zubrus, who played for DeBoer with the New Jersey Devils. They acquired forward Nick Spaling from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 22. Each can play center or wing and is comfortable skating on the fourth line or in the top six, giving DeBoer flexibility.

Joonas Donskoi, a rookie from Finland, has been a free-agent find. Donskoi is known most for his offensive skill, but he's also a responsible two-way player. Melker Karlsson got off to a slow start because of an off-season injury, but the second-year player from Sweden has rounded into shape and made an impact as a relentless puck hound.

Tommy Wingels led the forwards in hits (203) and had 54 blocked shots. Matt Nieto, who was sidelined down the stretch with a broken knuckle, is one of the fastest Sharks.

DEFENSEMEN

Kings: Drew Doughty reasserted himself as a Norris Trophy candidate with 51 points, the most since he had 59 in 2009-10, when he was the second-youngest Norris finalist. Doughty was superb in his own zone and continued to log big minutes. Brayden McNabb, who's more of a physical presence, benefited from being paired with Doughty.

Alec Martinez had a career-high 31 points and formed an effective partnership with Jake Muzzin for much of the second half before an undisclosed injury in the final days of the regular season.

Muzzin continued to make strides as a big-bodied puck mover who can take on more responsibility. Luke Schenn provided another hard-nosed defender upon his arrival in January, and Rob Scuderi's stay-at-home stability and penalty-killing skills paid immediate dividends after the Kings acquired him before the NHL Trade Deadline.


Sharks: Brent Burns has been the key figure in a much-improved defensive corps. He had a career year, playing his way into the Norris Trophy conversation by setting single-season franchise records for goals (27) and points (75) by a defenseman. He also had more shots on goal (353) in a season than any player in franchise history. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Burns takes full advantage of his unusually quick, powerful and accurate wrist shot. He's aggressive and unpredictable, joining the rush and shooting from all angles.

The Sharks signed Paul Martin, a stay-at-home type, as a free agent during the offseason, and he turned out to be a perfect partner for Burns.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who was sidelined by a knee injury down the stretch, is San Jose's top shutdown defenseman, but he has joined the rush more this season. Partner Justin Braun had a bounce-back season.

The Sharks acquired Roman Polak from the Toronto Maple Leafs in late February, and he added veteran depth and much-needed muscle in front of the crease. Polak has been paired with Brenden Dillon, another physical defenseman who had had the best season of his career.

GOALTENDERS

Kings: Jonathan Quick set a franchise record with 40 wins and kept the Kings afloat for so long he may get some votes for the Vezina Trophy. Quick allowed one or fewer goals in 15 of his first 34 games. The 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner can steal games and knows how to win in the playoffs.

Jhonas Enroth, signed last summer, adjusted to the backup role and finished with a 2.17 GAA in 16 games.

Sharks: Martin Jones and James Reimer are a solid goaltending duo.

San Jose paid a steep price to acquire Jones last June, sending a first-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and a prospect to the Boston Bruins. But in his first full season as a starter, the former King has proven to be well worth the price.

Jones made 19 saves in a 5-1 victory against the Kings at Staples Center in his Sharks debut, then had back-to-back shutouts against the Anaheim Ducks and Washington Capitals in his next two starts. He finished with a 37-23-4 record, a 2.27 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.

After backup Alex Stalock struggled for much of the season, the Sharks acquired Reimer from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 27. Reimer went 6-2-0 with a 1.62 GAA and three shutouts in eight games with the Sharks and gives them insurance in case Jones is injured. He's played well enough to earn a chance for some playoff action.

COACHES

Kings: Sutter again had to adjust to an underachieving offense and injuries to Gaborik and Carter that challenged the Kings' depth. It helped that general manager Dean Lombardi added Lecavalier and Schenn, two players who fit well into the dressing room and with Sutter's approach.

One of Sutter's best assets is finding effective line combinations, and he did so again with multiple versions involving Lucic, Carter, Toffoli and Kopitar. Beyond that, it was a struggle to get more production out of his bottom-six units, an issue that Sutter recognized frequently during the season.

Sutter, who passed mentor Bob Pulford for second on the Kings' all-time wins list this season, has always said he doesn't care much for the regular season, so expect him to get re-energized for another postseason run, when he's in his element.

"I coach for April, May and June," Sutter said.

Sharks: DeBoer replaced Todd McLellan, the winningest coach in franchise history, last May 28, weeks after the end of a tumultuous season for San Jose, which had missed the playoffs for the first time since 2003.

The Sharks appeared ready for a new voice in the room, and the understated DeBoer quickly won over his players with his positive-but-firm approach. When San Jose hit some rough stretches early in the season, losing six straight games at one point, DeBoer didn't panic, and neither did his players. The Sharks were 18-18-2 and sixth in the Pacific Division on Jan. 9 but had one of the NHL's best records after that and clinched a playoff berth on March 28.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kings: The power play finished eighth, scoring on exactly 20 percent of its chances (47 of 235). Doughty and Toffoli shared the team lead with nine power-play goals. The addition of Lecavalier gives the Kings another weapon, and if Gaborik returns, the power play will be more dangerous.

Even with stellar work by Quick, the penalty-killing remained in the middle of the pack. Part of the problem is that the Kings gave opponents the third-highest number of power-play opportunities in the League. Toffoli and Carter are among the better shorthanded threats in the NHL.

Sharks: San Jose has one of the NHL's most dangerous power plays. The first unit, led by Thornton, has a wealth of skill and experience. Thornton is one of the best passers in NHL history, and he has his choice of targets, from Pavelski to Marleau to Couture and Burns.

Burns has shown a knack for finding open lanes and getting shots on net from the point. Pavelski isn't big, but he lives in front of the net and is one of the League's best at deflections. Marleau is the Sharks' all-time leader in power-play goals; Pavelski ranks second.

Fixing the penalty kill was a point of emphasis for DeBoer, but it ranked in the bottom third again. DeBoer preaches an aggressive approach, and on some nights the Sharks have been able to smother opposing power plays. The addition of Spaling and Zubrus has helped. DeBoer has relied less on top offensive players such as Pavelski and Couture to kill penalties and more on defensemen and bottom-six forwards.

SERIES CHANGERS

Kings: Tanner Pearson, forward -- If Pearson can channel his productivity from last season's playoffs, when he had 12 points in 24 games, it will take pressure off the Kings' marquee forwards.

The 23-year-old came up in the organization with Toffoli and is regarded more as a two-way forward. But he showed during the second half of this season that he has considerable offensive potential, particularly when put in a top-six role.

Sharks: Martin Jones, goaltender -- Jones has made two playoff appearances and has never started a game. He has to be sharp from the moment the puck drops in Game 1. Jones' unflappable nature should help him handle the postseason pressure.

Jones has been an upgrade from Antti Niemi, who went 19-20 in the playoffs for San Jose, including a 3.74 goals against average in their first-round loss to the Kings in 2014.

If the Sharks hope to go deep in the playoffs, Jones will have to win the goaltending battle more nights than not.

WILL WIN IF …

Kings: They re-establish their finish.

Los Angeles has hung its hat on closing out games under Sutter, but that was a major issue toward the end of the regular season. The Kings were outscored 12-4 in the third period in a seven-game stretch from March 26 to April 5, and they failed to hold a 3-0 lead in their season finale against the Winnipeg Jets; a 4-3 shootout loss cost them the Pacific Division title.

With Quick in goal, the Kings are set up to protect leads or at least be positioned to go ahead. They can't afford such defensive lapses and expect to have a long spring.

Sharks: Thornton, Pavelski and Burns stay hot, and Jones steals a game or two. The Sharks can't afford to have a first-round slump from any of their top three point-producers. Even if the big guns keep producing, Jones will need a gem or two for the Sharks to advance.

It wouldn't hurt if for the Sharks to re-establish some type of home-ice advantage. San Jose had a League-high 28 road wins but was below .500 at SAP Center.

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