By Allan Muir
The Sharks barely broke a sweat in sweeping the Canucks in the first round, while the Kings outslugged the Blues in a grueling and physical six-game series that left L.A. battered and bruised. San Jose comes into this meeting with fresher legs and three lines, anchored by Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, that are capable of carrying the offense on any given night. Los Angeles had to peck and scratch for goals against St. Louis, but the Kings have gotten their defensive swagger back. The defending champs look like a very tough out.
March 14: Sharks 4, Kings 3
March 16: Kings 5, Sharks 2
April 16: Sharks 3, Kings 2 (SO)
April 27: Kings 3, Sharks 2
San Jose's keys to victory
Does a Vezina Trophy finalist trump a Conn Smythe winner? Antti Niemi will have to for the Sharks to have a chance in this series. Niemi was solid in the first round (1.86 GAA, .937 save percentage), but didn't face the kind of traffic that Los Angeles is sure to create. Conversely, in front of Jonathan Quick, last season's playoff MVP, the Kings boast a bigger, tougher, more experienced defense than the Canucks, so the space that was taken so easily by San Jose's forwards in the first round will require a higher price this time around. That puts the onus squarely on Brent Burns, the former defenseman whose move to forward has re-invigorated Thornton's line. Burns had a lot of success against the Kings this year, with eight points in the teams' four regular-season meetings.
Los Angeles' keys to victory
Coming off four consecutive wins, it makes sense that the Kings will stick to the game plan that got them here. That means committing to the same relentless physical game, but being smart about it. San Jose's power play feasted on Vancouver's undisciplined approach, scoring seven power play goals on 24 chances, so staying out of the box is critical. The Kings did a nice job of spreading the offense in their series against the Blues, but they'll need more from their big guns this time around, particularly Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, and more from a power play that scored just twice in 15 chances against the Blues. And, of course, they'll need Quick to be big. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock pointed him out as the difference-maker in the first round, saying Quick outworked St. Louis' forwards. Quick will be hard-pressed to match his stellar numbers (1.58 GAA, .944 save percentage) against a deeper, more skilled San Jose offense.
It wasn't that long ago that Raffi Torres was Public Enemy No. 1 in San Jose (well, at least in the top three), which made his acquisition at the deadline a bone of contention for many of the team's fans. But here's the thing about guys like Torres: Fans hate them on the other team, but love them once they're in the home team's sweater. Since swapping out Coyotes maroon for Sharks teal, the new-look Torres has proved himself to both his teammates and the fans, taking just two minor penalties in 15 games with San Jose, energizing the club with his speed and physical game and popping in the occasional OT winner. This series will test his discipline, but he has a chance to make a big difference.
Point to ponder
This series marks the first time since 1992 that the Kings will have home-ice advantage in a playoff series. The history element won't have much impact on this get-together, but holding serve against the team with the top home record in the NHL might. The Kings have been tough at the Staples Center, winning 10 straight heading into the opener, but they've also thrived by stealing early games on the road in their past five series wins. It'll be interesting to see if this changes their dynamic.
Los Angeles in six: The Sharks were the last team to eliminate the Kings in a playoff series when the clubs met in the first round two years ago, and San Jose is probably a deeper, better balanced team today. But it's hard to pick the Sharks against the champs, especially given how strongly the Kings finished off their last series. This should be a very entertaining set.