This is the first time the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings will meet in a Stanley Cup Playoff series, and one can't help but wish it had started on March 25.
Because on March 26, the Los Angeles Kings saw their season dramatically altered: Anze Kopitar, their best offensive weapon and team MVP, was lost to a broken ankle, putting him out for what's expected to be the rest of the season and postseason.
Can the Kings adjust to that loss offensively to hang with the potent Sharks' attack? Or can this significant underdog, and rival, add another chapter to the Sharks' playoff disappointments?
No. 2 San Jose Sharks vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Kings
Thursday, April 14 Los Angeles at San Jose, 10 p.m.
Saturday, April 16 Los Angeles at San Jose, 10 p.m.
Tuesday, April 19 San Jose at Los Angeles, 10:30 p.m.
Thursday, April 21 San Jose at Los Angeles, 10:30 p.m.
*Saturday, April 23 Los Angeles at San Jose, 10 p.m.
*Monday, April 25 San Jose at Los Angeles, TBD
*Wednesday, April 27 Los Angeles at San Jose, TBD
All times Eastern
Another postseason, another microscope on Joe Thornton, coming off a 2010 playoff where he had 12 points in 15 games and was a minus-11. His points were down this year, posting 70 in 80 games; perhaps his focus is no longer on the regular season?
Patrick Marleau recovered nicely from a slow start, scoring 19 points in March during the Sharks' torrid 9-2-3 run. Devin Setoguchi was his usual enigmatic self; putting together several scoring streaks in between droughts.
Getting Ryane Clowe back in the lineup is a huge boost for the Sharks' second line, where he and rookie sensation (who is no rookie in the playoffs) Logan Couture can be dangerous. Dany Heatley, whose goal total (26) marked his first season under 39 tallies since 2003-04, needs to be a factor in the playoffs.
Joe Pavelski (66 points) can move around the lineup and is clutch in the playoffs. Kyle Wellwood and Torrey Mitchell can pitch in offensively, while Ben Eager brings a winning attitude and some "sandpaper" down the lineup with Jamal Mayers.
There's no replacing Kopitar for the Kings, as he led the team in points (73) by a wide margin and all forwards in power-play points (18).
Losing Justin Williams was also a crippling blow, but he's back for Game 1 of the series. He and Dustin Brown finished with 57 points; Brown had seven power-play goals.
Ryan Smyth has nine goals on the power play and 23 overall, and will have to be the net-crashing presence he can be in trying to rattle Antti Niemi. Paired with Jarret Stoll and Williams, this could be the Kings' most effective line. Michal Handzus moves up to skate with Brown.
Two keys for the Kings hanging in this series offensively: Dustin Penner, who is still trying to get on an offensive roll after his big deadline acquisition; and finding some offense from the team's grind lines from players like Wayne Simmonds.
Dan Boyle's plus-2 probably isn't glamorous enough for Norris Trophy voters, but he's been solid for the Sharks: Averaging 26:14 per game, scoring 50 points. Douglas Murray remains one of the more physical presences on the blue line in the Western Conference — ask the Ducks about it.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the man they call "Pickles," has skated with several defensive partners this season and is second on the team in average TOI (20:51). Jason Demers, his most frequent partner, has been the team's second option on the power play point behind Boyle. Niclas Wallin is a gamer; Ian White is making his first playoff appearance, filling a void on the blue line during the regular season for the Sharks.
The Kings defense begins with Drew Doughty, averaging 25:38 per game and potentially seeing that average rise in the postseason. His offensive numbers were down from last season, but he was a plus-13 for the Kings. He'll skate with Willie Mitchell, who brings a physical presence and veteran savvy to the blue line.
Speaking of savvy: Rob Scuderi, two years removed from a Cup with the Penguins, skates with Jack Johnson, who is second on the team with 23:11 average ice time. Defensive liability? By comparison to his Kings peers, sure. (That said, Johnson led the team with 133 blocked shots. A team with Rob Scuderi on it.) But he also has offensive upside that needs to be activated in this series.
Matt Greene also adds a veteran presence and an appreciation of cupcakes.
Overall, this is a unit that could match up well with the Sharks.
The Antti Niemi that enters this series is not the same guy who backstopped the Sharks earlier this season. He struggled, posting a pedestrian 9-13-9 and sharing time with Antero Niittymaki. Then … well, the Mercury News said it:
Since taking over the full-time starting job in January, back when the Sharks were out of the playoff picture, he has gone 26-5-4 with a 2.08 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage. A workhorse, Niemi started 34 consecutive games at one point.
He was a Conn Smythe candidate through three rounds for the Chicago Blackhawks last postseason, before struggling a bit in the finals. But he has a ring, which is more than you can say about nearly all of the Sharks … and his opponent.
Jonathan Quick started 60 games, going 35-22-3 with a sterling 2.24 GAA. Coach Terry Murray has already given him a vote of confidence, saying Jonathan Bernier isn't scheduled to receive a start in the series. Quick struggled to a 3.50 GAA and an .884 save percentage vs. Vancouver last season. He doesn't just need to be better; he needs to be the difference in this series for the Kings.
Ladies and gentlemen: Baba O'Sharkie (words begin about a minute in).
How do you not go with, "Don't cry/Don't raise your eye. It's Marc-Edouarrrrrrrd Vlasssssssic…"?
One of the reasons Todd McLellan was hired by the Sharks was to bring a little of that Detroit Red Wings magic over to the teal and black. It didn't translate in the first postseason, but last year's playoffs showed McLellan's group could, in fact, overcome some adversity (the Dan Boyle "own goal," the Red Wings huge win in Game 4 of the semifinals). That doesn't mean McLellan isn't still on the hot seat should the Sharks underperform.
Terry Murray has guided this team to consecutive playoff appearances, but life changed dramatically when Kopitar went down. Murray's challenge in this series: Find the right combination of players up front that can generate offense while not yielding too much of it to the Sharks' scorers.
Well, that and finally figuring out a way to motivate some of the team's underachievers like Dustin Penner.
The Sharks were third in the NHL on the power play with a 23.5 percent conversation rate in 289 chances. They were 24th on the kill at 79.5 percent in 273 shorthanded situations.
The Kings were 21st in the NHL on the power play with a 16.2 percent conversation rate in 291 chances, but much of those were with Kopitar. The Kings were fourth on the kill, with a kill rate of 85.5 in 276 times shorthanded.
Evenly matched, eh?
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Had this been a less explosive offensive team across the ice in the first round, the Los Angeles Kings would have a chance to advance. Their offense has looked disjointed in the last few weeks. Unless Williams juices the goal-scoring and Quick's the difference-maker, the Sharks have the advantage here in several facets of the series.
Prediction: San Jose in five. The Sharks don't have the weight of the hockey world crushing them with expectations, and they have a goaltender that isn't going to bungle the series with an untimely dud. But the Sharks will win because of what the Kings don't have, which is Kopitar.