Last year, the Los Angeles Kings toppled the San Jose Sharks in a thrilling seven-game Western Conference semifinal that was decided by home-ice advantage. The margin of victory was razor-thin, and the visiting team failed to register a single win in the series.
L.A. does not boast such an edge in 2013-14, as the Sharks finished higher in the Pacific Division standings and will host up to four of seven games at the SAP Center.
Therefore, the Kings will need to perform even better to prevail this season. San Jose is deep and one of the few squads capable of rivaling L.A.’s puck-possession game. On paper, this has the makings of yet another close series.
So how can the Kings get past the Sharks? These are the keys to L.A. coming out on top in this matchup for the second straight season.
Control the Neutral Zone
Though the Sharks (53.4 percent) and Kings (56.8 percent) aren’t worlds apart in Corsi percentage, they approach possession differently.
San Jose is much more explosive on offense, with finishers across the board in Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Tomas Hertl and even Martin Havlat when healthy. The Sharks boast four 20-goal scorers to L.A.'s two and rank sixth in the league in offense.
Their talent is on full display in the offensive zone, as the puck moves swiftly and accurately while the shooters pick corners on opposing netminders.
Meanwhile, L.A.’s offense is notoriously impotent, ranking 26th in goals per game in the regular season. The Kings’ goals are greasier, as they are the product of raw skill.
This actually works to L.A.’s favor in the playoffs, where there is typically much less open ice to work with.
That postseason fact of life is one Darryl Sutter’s men must emphasize, dictating play in the neutral zone to prevent opponents from gaining speed and easy entry into scoring areas.
Once Sharks pivot Joe Thornton gets ahold of the puck down low, his line is likely to dominate possession. He’s that good with the biscuit, ranking seventh in the league in on-ice Corsi and fourth in relative Corsi, which suggests his unit does most of the damage in San Jose from a possession standpoint.
As such, the Kings must hold their blue line as best as possible and limit the Sharks to dump-ins when Thornton’s around. He and linemate Burns aren’t the speediest forwards, so making them skate and work for possession in the offensive zone is critical.
Any shift during which San Jose is granted the space to carry the puck into the Kings' zone should be considered a failure.
Since the Kings are more comfortable than the Sharks with chipping and chasing, that’s a tempo they must look to establish early and often.
The next task falls upon L.A’s defensemen, who must retrieve the puck and make plays under pressure.
The biggest concerns in this respect are blueliners Jake Muzzin, Willie Mitchell, Slava Voynov and Robyn Regehr, who all struggled to handle the puck with confidence this year.
If the Kings can win battles along the boards and exit their zone cleanly, they’ll be golden. If they can’t, San Jose will buzz around Jonathan Quick’s net, and L.A.’s fate will be determined by the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
L.A.’s forwards are diligent and physical enough to wear down the Sharks defense, and in a big-game setting, the likes of Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Justin Williams have shown themselves to be opportunistic enough to capitalize as well.
The puck simply needs to get to their sticks, which begins with guarding their blue line and subsequently breaking out of their end in efficient fashion.
San Jose’s special teams are stronger than L.A.’s. In 2013-14, the Sharks’ power play ranked 20th (17.2 percent) and the penalty kill ranked sixth (84.8 percent), whereas the Kings’ PP came in at 27th (15.1 percent) and they were 11th (83.1 percent) in short-handed situations.
That’s an advantage that should compel the Kings to remain at even strength for as long as possible.
Moreover, no team in the NHL produces a higher volume of shots per 60 power-play minutes than the Sharks. Even if they don’t always convert, they seldom lose momentum on the PP, peppering goaltenders with shots and tiring the opposition with wave upon wave of offense.
They boast a ton of firepower and can hurt you in any number of ways.
The low plays can be deadly with Thornton as the quarterback, while veteran Dan Boyle is still a threat from the point. Meanwhile, Couture and Pavelski are equally adept at setting up teammates and netting goals themselves. Pavelski is so dangerous on the man advantage that he ranked fifth in power-play points this season.
Because of the sheer variety of looks San Jose has at its disposal, devising a go-to tactic that will nullify this PP is unlikely. The Kings will rely on goaltending and hope that standing up at their blue line curtails the Sharks’ zone time.
Why even put yourself in such a predicament, though?
As a hard-nosed, heavy team, L.A. must realize the importance of playing smart hockey, staying out of the box and giving itself the best chance to win.
At even strength, their respective differentials sit at plus-21 and plus-32.
The Shark Tank hasn’t been kind to visitors of late. This season, San Jose was 29-7-5 at the SAP Center. In 2013’s lockout-shortened campaign, it went 17-2-5 in friendly confines. The previous year, the Sharks’ home record was 26-12-3.
Their goal differential at home is plus-45 in 2013-14. On the road? Plus-one.
San Jose is a drastically better side when it hosts games, and its building can be very intimidating when the Sharks get on a roll.
In order to steal a game on hostile territory, the Kings will need to maintain their composure and stick to their game plan. L.A.’s squad is battle-tested, and its home and away records were identical this year—23-14-4, which represents a significant improvement over last season’s putrid 8-12-4 road record.
That bodes well, but the playoffs offer such a charged atmosphere that Sutter must remind his men to keep their eyes on the prize.
Furthermore, San Jose was the highest-scoring team in the league in the first period this season. The ability to jump out to a lead, combined with home-ice advantage, makes the Sharks an incredibly difficult club to beat as a visitor.
Will the Kings be able to weather the storm?
With that said, Todd McLellan’s men aren't as dominant after the opening frame.
Their first-period goal differential is a whopping plus-36, but their second- and third-period totals are plus-six and plus-two, respectively.
L.A.’s goal differential ebbs and flows (plus-17 in the first, minus-two in the second), but the Kings tend to finish strong, sporting a plus-13 mark in the final period.
The coaching staff must stress this simple kernel: Staying the course will pay off in the end. Even if the Sharks pull ahead early in a couple of contests, L.A. cannot afford to veer off the path that brought it to this point.
Should the Kings start to chase the game, they’ll be picked apart.
Merely playing your game can be difficult to remember in the pressure cooker of the postseason.
This Kings-Sharks clash is shaping up to be tight once more.
In order to win the series, L.A. must put its best foot forward by denying San Jose easy possession in the offensive zone, managing the puck intelligently and keeping play at even strength.
Given their home record and first-period prowess, the Sharks will likely build leads in a couple of games. It's up to the Kings to brush those off and stick to their game plan for 60 minutes—or more—at a time.