Kings vs. Sharks: Preview and Prediction for NHL Playoffs 2014 Matchup
For the second straight year, the battle of California will rage between the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Sharks and Kings have met in the postseason just twice in the history of their franchises, but both times happened in the last three seasons.
In 2011, the Sharks defeated the Kings in six games in the Western Conference Quarterfinal before falling to Vancouver two rounds later. Last year, Los Angeles narrowly prevailed in an intense seven-game Western Conference Semifinal, then the Kings lost in the next round to the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks.
With bad blood still boiling from 2013, both teams will be bringing plenty of jam. There won't be a lot of goals, but there will be plenty of drama.
Here's what to expect when the Sharks take on the Kings in Round 1.
All stats courtesy of NHL.com, current through games Friday, April 11.
San Jose Sharks: 50-22-9, 109 points, fourth in Western Conference
One game remaining, Saturday vs. Phoenix
Traditionally a very good regular-season team, the San Jose Sharks had a bounce-back season in 2014. They hit the 50-win mark for the first time since 2009-10, have home0ice advantage in the first round and are preparing to make their 10th consecutive playoff appearance.
The Sharks improved both their offensive and defensive games in their sixth season under coach Todd McLellan. "Little Joe" Pavelski had a breakthrough season, leading the team in scoring, while "Big Joe" Thornton was right behind. Antti Niemi was solid all year—third in the NHL with 38 wins.
Early on, San Jose boasted the hottest rookie of the year in Tomas Hertl. The skilled Czech has just returned to action after missing nearly four months due to knee surgery.
Los Angeles Kings: 46-48-7, 99 points, sixth in Western Conference
One game remaining, Saturday vs. Anaheim
Over the last two seasons, the Los Angeles Kings have established themselves as a moderately good regular-season team that can crank it up at playoff time. This season looks like it could be more of the same.
The Kings have been the stingiest defensive team in the league thanks to Vezina-caliber goaltending from Jonathan Quick and a breakout year from rookie Martin Jones. They've struggled to score goals, which has led to prolonged slumps and a streaky record from the 2012 Stanley Cup champions.
Los Angeles acquired sniper Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline to help with playoff scoring, while 26-year-old Anze Kopitar is building a reputation as one of the best two-way centers in the league.
The 2013-14 season series favors Los Angeles, which was 3-1-1 against San Jose.
- Revenge: The Sharks came up just short in a hard-fought Western Conference Semifinal in 2013, where five of the seven games were decided by just one goal. San Jose will be determined not to let history repeat this year.
- Home-Ice Advantage: The home team won all seven games of these two teams' second-round battle last season, where the higher-seeded Kings ultimately prevailed. This time, the Sharks have the edge in the standings and will host Game 7 if necessary.
- Depth: As the Sharks bring up their young players while still getting solid contributions from veterans Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, they've assembled one of the deepest groups of forwards in the league. San Jose should be able to roll out a balanced attack against Los Angeles.
- Stifling Defense: The Kings are the best in the league at preventing goals this season, and that's a full team effort. Los Angeles uses a physical style to grind down its opponents, taking away scoring opportunities before they even have a chance to develop. The Kings have allowed the second-lowest shot totals this season—an average of 26.2 shots per game for their opponents.
- Faceoff battles: Both the Kings and the Sharks are strong and deep down the middle, and it shows in their faceoff numbers. They're two of the three teams with the best performance in the circle this season at 52.8 percent. If Darryl Sutter can find a matchup to exploit, it could help improve the Kings' possession numbers.
- Scoring: Los Angeles has needed to keep it defense airtight, because it's had a tough time getting pucks into the opposing net. If the Kings hit another dry spell to start the playoffs, they could be headed for a long summer vacation.
San Jose Sharks
Los Angeles Kings
Players to Watch
San Jose Sharks: Brent Burns
With his conversion to forward now complete, Brent Burns is a big body that matches up well against the Kings' banging style of play. Burns can make plays off the rush, but he'll be most successful if he can park himself near Jonathan Quick's crease and make life miserable for the short-fused netminder.
Los Angeles Kings: Marian Gaborik
With 15 points in 18 games since arriving in Los Angeles, Burns' former Minnesota Wild teammate has delivered the offense the Kings were seeking when they acquired him at the trade deadline.
Can he keep it up in the tighter-checking playoffs? Hard to say. Gaborik has been past the first round just twice in his 14-year NHL career. His only impressive performance was 17 points in 18 games as the Wild reached the Western Conference Final back in 2002-03.
San Jose Sharks: Antti Niemi and Alex Stalock
Antti Niemi got off to a great start but has been inconsistent as the season has worn on. He has a goals-against average of 2.40 and a save percentage of .912 on the season, but is just 2-2-0 in April with a 3.15 GAA. Still, Niemi is second in the Western Conference behind Semyon Varlamov with 38 wins on the year.
Alex Stalock has more than pulled his weight as Niemi's backup, posting a record of 12-5-2 in 24 appearances with a goals-against average of 1.87 and a save percentage of .932.
Los Angeles Kings: Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones
After missing nearly two months of the season with a groin injury, Jonathan Quick will finish the year among the league's top five goalies with a 2.05 goals-against average—the last line of defense on the league's stingiest team. Quick has shown that he can raise his game in the playoffs; no reason to think that can't happen again.
Though he'll likely only appear in the playoffs if Quick is injured, 24-year-old rookie Martin Jones helped steady the ship for the Kings while Quick was sidelined earlier in the season. Jones posted a 12-6-0 record in 19 games with a .934 save percentage and a 1.81 goals-against average.
Physicality. The Sharks and Kings are evenly matched in many areas of the game. When emotions run high in a playoff series, Los Angeles' grinding, hard-hitting style has helped them take control of many a playoff series over the past two years.
The Kings are second in hits in 2013-14, while the considerably more mild-mannered Sharks are 25th. Both teams are in the bottom half of the league in penalty minutes, but the Kings average 1.8 minutes more per game than the Sharks.
San Jose's best tactic to temper L.A.'s attack will be a successful power play. If they can score on their man-advantage opportunities it could force the Kings to adopt a less aggressive style, giving the Sharks' skill players more room on the ice to work their magic.
Sharks Will Win If...
The Sharks will win if they can keep their composure, roll their lines and capitalize on their offensive chances when they come.
The new generation of San Jose stars will support veterans Thornton and Marleau more than ever, spreading out the workload, pressure and responsibility.
Though he won't be challenged often by the Kings, Antti Niemi will need to be sharp when called upon. Every goal against will be critical in this tight series.
Kings Will Win If...
The Kings will win if they can rattle the Sharks like they did last year.
Los Angeles' most effective tactic is as much mental as it is physical. The team epitomizes the idea of being "hard to play against."
We saw the Sharks lose focus during last year's series, with the Kings wearing them down and throwing them off their game. The Sharks are a year older and wiser now. They'll need to muster every ounce of focus and determination not to get frustrated by Los Angeles' physical play and sharp goaltending.
Every move the Sharks have made this season has ultimately been about avenging last year's Game 7 loss to the Kings.
This is the most complete team the Sharks have iced for many years. With better focus and the support of their fans through home-ice advantage, they're poised to make some noise in the 2013-14 postseason.
We'll see plenty of emotion, and it will come down to the wire, but San Jose will prevail this year.
Sharks in seven.