2014 NHL playoffs preview: Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks
Regular Season recaps
Wed. Oct. 30: Los Angeles 4, San Jose 3 (OT)
Wed. Nov. 27: San Jose 3, Los Angeles 2 (SO)
Thu. Dec. 19: Los Angeles 4, San Jose 1
Mon. Jan. 27: Los Angeles 1, San Jose 0
Thu April 3: San Jose 2, Los Angeles 1
Keys to a Kings victory
The Jennings Trophy winners (fewest goals allowed) have established their defensive prowess, but L.A. needs to control the puck if its wants to win the series. That may be a prescription for any team to win any series, but both the Kings and Sharks excel with extended puck control in the offensive zone. L.A.'s possession game is aided primarily by Anze Kopitar. He's torched the Sharks since 2011, illustrated by this nifty graph from Jewels from the Crown.
The Kings also need defenseman Drew Doughty, who has been struggling with an upper-body injury, to be healthy in order to protect against San Jose’s prolific offense. Goalie Jonathan Quick had another stellar season, and he beat the Sharks both times he faced them in 2013-14. If Los Angeles can keep scoring at its current clip, there’s a good shot that the Kings will advance even though the Sharks usually play them close. Jeff Carter’s streakiness is well-established, but he has thrived in both of his playoff runs in L.A. Trade deadline acquisition Marian Gaborik gives Kings coach Darryl Suter more flexibility with his line combinations, and pitched in with points in seven of his last nine games. Toss in the unheralded contributions of Justin Williams, and L.A. could have an easier time with San Jose than usual.
Keys to a Sharks victory
It’s easy to point to the importance of San Jose's Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both of whom are annually maligned for coming up short in the playoffs. Between those two, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Brent Burns, the Sharks have plenty of offense. Outside of one good start (coincidentally, against the Kings), netminder Antti Niemi endured an otherwise forgettable stretch to end the season. He allowed three or more goals in four of his last six starts, and now doesn't even have a public vote of confidence from his coach. Coach Todd McLellan has indicated that he knows who his starter will be, but hasn’t revealed if it will be Niemi or Alex Stalock, who has been effective as Niemi's backup. Stalock finished the season with a 1.87 goals-against average in 24 starts, with a .932 save percentage, and allowed just one goal in his last two games. The Sharks are one team whose offensive versatility can disrupt the Kings' puck protection. L.A. has historically struggled with both Pavelski and Couture (though, who succeeds against Pavelski?), and the emergence of Burns gives San Jose one of the most balanced attacks in the Western Conference.
Kings in 6: In a stacked collection of first round series, this one may stand out as the best of all. The home team won every game of last year's playoff series between these two teams, and this season L.A. and San Jose played four one-goal games in five contests. The difference now is the Kings' offense. After a nasty drought in January that saw them get shut out four times in five games, the addition of Gaborik and standout play from Kopitar has made them one of most balanced teams in the NHL. With such a tenuous situation in goal for the Sharks, L.A. should survive if it gets the usual fine play from Quick.
Game 1: April 17, @ San Jose; 10:30pm (NBCSN, CBC)
Game 2: April 20 @ San Jose, 10pm (NBCSN, CBC)
Game 3: April 22 @ Los Angeles, 10pm (NBCSN, CBC)
Game 4: April 24 @ Los Angeles, 10:30pm (NBCSN, CBC)
*Game 5: April 26 @ San Jose, time TBD (NBCSN, CBC)
*Game 6: April 28 @ Los Angeles, time TBD, (CBC)
*Game 7: April 30 @ San Jose, time TBD (CBC)