The NHL Western Conference playoffs are California dreaming, as three teams from the Golden State qualify for the postseason for the first time ever. In another first, the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings will add a playoff chapter to their rivalry come Thursday, in the quarterfinals opener.
The hockey stars have all aligned perfectly for the state of California, sending more teams to the playoffs than all of Canada.
In the San Jose Sharks’ 14th playoff appearance in their relatively young history, they look to bury demons of past failures and build on last year’s Western Finals appearance.
The Sharks are listed as slight favorites in this series, even further proof that San Jose is under the radar more than ever. Even after capturing another title in hockey’s toughest division and being lights out since January 15th, nobody is picking the Sharks to do anything but hit the golf links early.
With the Kings awaiting, here are the top seven points that the opening quarterfinal series against LA will hinge on.
In the six regular season matches between the two teams, San Jose has twice hung a six-burger on LA—including the April 4 dismantling of the Los Angeles Kings, to the tune of 6-3 and a November 15 match when the Sharks were struggling to climb out of the cellar.
With the 3-1-2 record against the Kings, the Sharks also dropped two matches, thanks to Jarret Stoll’s shootout efforts.
Both teams have excelled in the close games, with the Los Angeles Kings posting a 22-9- 6 record in one-goal games, good for fourth best in the NHL. The San Jose Sharks aren’t far behind at 21-9-9, and also sport a goals-against-average of 2.54, behind the Kings’ 2.39 mark.
The Sharks carry a 23-14-4 road record and are among the league leaders in road goals, with 243 tallies. Los Angeles has not fared well in that department, with a 21-17-3 road record and sitting near the bottom of the league in goals and goals on the road.
Despite the lack of offensive pop on the road, the Kings still hold a respectable plus-21 goal differential. Not to be outdone, the Sharks boast a plus-35 and a excellent 25-11-5 record at home.
While many experts want to get behind the vaunted Kings defense, in reality, the San Jose Sharks are no slouches themselves. After deciding not to replace departed captain Rob Blake's minutes in the offseason, the Sharks couldn't have been surprised by their rocky start.
The turnaround to the Sharks' season has been sparked by their renewed dedication to defense, and it shows in the team's 5-on-5 play.
With just 133 even strength goals against, San Jose sits third best in the NHL in this category and are ranked eighth in the NHL with a 28.9 shots against average.
Against the eighth-worst shooting team in the Kings (28.8 shots a game), the Sharks are also heads above LA when it comes to winning percentage when being outshot (.583).
The Sharks will definitely still have their work cut out for them, against an excellent mix of defenders for the Kings. Their top two pairs of Willie Mitchell -Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson-Scuderi will be tough to solve for San Jose.
Jonathan Quick started 60 games and finished with a 2.24 goals against average and a .918 save percentage. He's been a huge part the Kings stingy defense, but he'll need to be his best against the San Jose Sharks who were dominant in the last month of the regular season.
With the specter of his 3.50 GAA and a horrid .884 save percentage in last year's series against the Canucks looming over Quick’s head, the pressure is definitely on.
Antti Niemi doesn't look like he did last year for the Hawks, he looks better. The Sharks dominance in the regular season has skewed public perception so much, that Niemi is hardly getting the credit he deserves. He's been nothing short of a magician down the stretch and is looking to win it all again.
Starting 34 consecutive games down the stretch and recording his first 30-win campaign is just the beginning for the Finnish goaltender. Sporting a 35-18-6 record and a 2.38 GAA combined with a .920 save percentage, he’s ready for the postseason.
His two losses against the Kings this year came by way of a Jarret Stoll shootout, unfortunately for LA, we won’t be seeing that in the playoffs.
Anze Kopitar is expected to miss the bulk of the postseason after undergoing surgery to repair tendons in his right ankle. Justin Williams is rumored to return from a dislocated shoulder in time for this series, way ahead of his projected timetable and may require a harness to play.
Kopitar and Williams account for a huge chunk of Los Angeles scoring, with 47 total goals and 130 total combined points on the year.
In order for the Kings to advance, they will need timely scoring from the bottom six skaters to keep pace with the superior Sharks depth. While the Kings may appear to have enough punch at first glance, with six skaters having scored at least 20 goals, they will need contributions from the third and fourth lines.
The San Jose Sharks head into the playoffs boasting five 60-point scorers and relying on the play of their stellar third line in Mitchell-Pavelski-Wellwood.
While everyone wants to point at the top three San Jose Sharks skaters, the next three in Devin Setoguchi, Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture are equally as deadly.
To make things worse for LA, the Sharks’ depth has allowed them the luxury of shuffling their lines almost all season allowing them to ride whomever is hot.
This almost certainly spells doom for the Kings if Brown (28 goals) or Penner cannot click in the early going. Without either of them stepping up their play, the Kings are going to be playing uphill with skates on. The Kings weren't exactly an offensive juggernaut even with their leading scorer, and without him, they might be sunk against San Jose.
What to watch for : Trevor Lewis is LA’s 24-year-old rookie, who has seen limited action on the top line alongside Ryan Smyth and Dustin Brown. With just three goals and 10 assists in 72 games played, the Kings are in trouble if they are looking for him to be the savior.
Logan Couture has been one of the biggest stories in the Western Conference this year, the 22-year-old has stepped up his play and looks to build on last year's successful playoffs. Finishing second on the sharks with 32 goals, Couture’s two-way play will pay dividends in the playoffs this year.
Drew Doughty has suffered through a year of inconsistency, recording 11 goals and 40 points in his third year. While he may not have put up the same numbers as a year ago, where he posted an impressive 59 points, he’s still plenty dangerous.
Like Couture, Doughty is also looking to build on last year's playoffs experience where he had three goals and four assists in six games against the Canucks. Couture and Doughty are also longtime friends who grew up together in London, Ontario but will be setting aside their friendship in this first-round matchup.
Jason Demers continues to build his confidence in his breakout year. After struggling through most of the first half, he's steadied his play and learned when to jump up into the mix.
Let's face it, the Sharks front office and coaching staff made a huge statement by not signing Blake's replacement, and Demers has made them look like geniuses. He's improved his defensive play and shown more caution when jumping up in the rush, and he's going to be a factor for San Jose.
There are several key defensemen on either side of the rink that have huge roles to play in this series, for better or worse.
The Kings dynamic duo of Johnson and Doughty are sure to play the Sharks aggressively and give the San Jose breakout fits by pinching in. Without Kopitar or an effective Williams, the Sharks can afford to gamble in trying to create an odd man rush using the Kings’ aggressiveness against them.
Don’t be surprised to see Clowe or Pavelski capitalizing on a mistake by the young pair; they can play the boards as well as anyone. With speed alongside them in Setoguchi and Mitchell, this can create a golden scoring opportunity against a stingy King defense.
As tremendous as both Johnson and Doughty are, however, they enter the playoffs ice cold, having just four combined points in their last 13 games.
The Sharks must learn from the lessons taught a year ago in the Western Conference Finals, where the struggling breakout crippled their chances against the Blackhawks.
What to watch for : The Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Jason Demers pair for the Sharks have been especially efficient late this year and could break out in the playoffs.
Demers has shaken off some early season inconsistencies and recovered to post a impressive plus-19 rating. Vlasic is averaging over 20 minutes a game, and the two have shown a remarkable chemistry that can’t be underestimated.
I also wouldn’t count out Ian White making a big impact in his first postseason ever, and paired with Niclas Wallin, give the Sharks three terrific blue-line pairs.
The Sharks carry the second-best power play (23.5) into the series, against the highly-rated Kings penalty kill unit that is exceptionally efficient at home (87.5%) . Overall the Kings penalty killing unit is ranked fourth best at 85.5%, and it will be interesting to see how the Sharks match up.
Much has been made about San Jose's struggling penalty kill, finishing near the bottom of the league at 79.6%. The Kings power play sits in the lower half of the league at just 16.1%, but that was with a healthy Kopitar.
After losing their leading scorer, the Kings power play went ice cold in seven games capitalizing only once out of 23 man advantages.
Another interesting facet of the Sharks' power play to consider would be Ian White's play a point on the second power-play unit. He has finished strong in the final two weeks of the season, and more importantly, is starting to look more comfortable with his partner Niclas Wallin.
His first goal as a Shark reminded us of why Doug Wilson acquired White; his hockey sense and ability to generate from the point has fans excited.
The Sharks have got to keep out of the penalty box and keep the crease clear of the big forwards for LA. But with a superior edge in just about every category, the Sharks should take care of the Kings in five.