(Ed. Note: With its new playoff format, the NHL is seeking to create passion for fans and teams through forced, bracketed relationships. But hey, at first glance, the matchups are pretty sexy. All of this led to one ideal theme for our 2014 Playoff Preview: Tinder, the social media dating app. We hope you swipe right this postseason ...)
What San Jose vs. Los Angeles will come down to: goals. Granted, that's a truism, since every game and every series eventually comes down to goals, but it's especially pertinent here, where LA is the league's best team at having the puck, and one of the worst at doing much with it.
San Jose, meanwhile, is an offensive juggernaut. Fortunately, Jonathan Quick is the great equalizer, but if the Kings can't find a way to give him some run support, he could find himself in Marty Turco territory, with three shutouts wins and four losses when all is said and done.
That would seem unfair, but really, this entire series is unfair. Here we have two of the Western Conference's best teams. Two teams that every other club in the Western Conference has been looking at, all season, and thinking, boy, I sure hope I don't have to face them. Two teams with aspirations of making a deep run. And one of them will end the year having played just one more playoff series than the teams of Western Canada. That's going to be painful.
But their pain is our gain. This is going to be one Hell of a first-round matchup.
April 17: Los Angeles Kings at San Jose Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET.
April 20: Los Angeles Kings at San Jose Sharks, 10 p.m. ET.
April 22: San Jose Sharks at Los Angeles Kings, 10 p.m. ET.
April 24: San Jose Sharks at Los Angeles Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET.
April 26: Los Angeles Kings at San Jose Sharks, TBA*
April 28: San Jose Sharks at Los Angeles Kings, TBA*
April 30: Los Angeles Kings at San Jose Sharks, TBA*
You won't see a better collection of centres than what this series boasts, as both teams are genuinely three deep in the middle. For the Sharks, the Joes lead the way. Thornton and Pavelski have been the stars of the San Jose offence from the same line for much of this year, but with Tomas Hertl returning to the lineup, and with the line-rolling Kings coming into town, expect Todd McLellan to split them up (save for times of crisis). Thornton will centre a line with Brent Burns and, provided he doesn't look too rusty, Hertl. Meanwhile, Pavelski will be entrusted with his own line, likely with Tommy Wingels and either Raffi Torres or Martin Havlat.
Logan Couture centers the second line of Patrick Marleau and Matt Nieto.
Why spread it out? Because the Kings do, and you can't show weakness against the Kings, who just keep coming in waves, and will erode any soft spot you've got.
Anze Kopitar leads the way for that group, and he'll skate alongside possession demon Justin Wiliams and the newly-acquired Marian Gaborik. The Kopitar line tends to win their matchups, so expect Todd McLellan to do his best to keep them away from the Thornton line, who is far more likely to run roughshod over the Kings' second line, led by Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
Line three for LA features Jarret Stoll, Dustin Brown, and standout rookie Tyler Toffoli.
Both teams are genuinely nine forwards deep, but where the Sharks have the edge here is in production. With Pavelski centering his own group, they'll be sending a 70-point guy over the boards on every one of their top three lines (Marleau and Thornton being th eother two). Only Kopitar hit that benchmark for LA.
LA and San Jose aren't just stacked up front, though. Each has a defence corps led by one of the best defensemen in the game in one-time Team Canada teammates Drew Doughty and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
They play very different styles. Vlasic's more of a shutdown guy, and he plays on a pairing with Jason Demers often tasked with exactly that. Expect them to see a lot of the Kopitar line.
Dan Boyle and Matt Irwin create the offence for the Sharks, so expect them to share the ice with the Thornton line whenever possible. After that, Brad Stuart, Scott Hannan, and Justin Braun trade time on the bottom pairing.
Over in LA, Doughty's more of a natural puck-mover, capable of freestyling, jumping into the rush, and getting back before anything goes away. He can wheel, and he plays with the woefully underheralded Jake Muzzin, a stay-at-home guy who can move the puck.
Not unlike their forwards, what the Kings boast on the back-end is balance. Behind the push and pull of Doughty and Muzzin, Slava Voynov and Robyn Regehr do the same thing, and Alec Martinez and Willie Mitchell do as well. Seriously, all Darryl Sutter has to do is set his lineup and let them go. He trusts every line and every pair in every situation. It's no wonder that it's so difficult to get pucks to Jonathan Quick, let alone past him. The Kings' defense is a machine.
The Sharks have some questions in goal. Todd McLellan has yet to name his starter, but I think we all know full well that it's going to be Antti Niemi, who's been outplayed by Alex Stalock of late. That said, Niemi will have a short leash, and if he struggles, expect Stalock, who's gone 12-5-2 with a .932 save percentage and a 1.87 GAA in 24 appearances, to get the nod.
The Kings, on the other hand, know exactly what's happening: Jonathan Quick will do what he does. Quick is one of the best goalies in the NHL. (It's tough to question a guy who missed nearly half the year and still finished one shutout shy of the league-best.) At playoff time, he tends to get even better.
Neither of these teams come into the postseason all that hot, as both won just 5 of their remaining 10, and watched as the Anaheim Ducks coasted to a Pacific Division title and a first-round matchup outside the hellscape that is California. Their punishment is each other.
Darryl Sutter is the best. He's basically come in, settled the Kings into a brilliant puck possession system, heavy on the defence, and let them go. Their lines all play the same way. Their forwards all play the same way. There are really no weak points on this team.
As for McLellan, he's a little more hands-on. If you see massive adjustments in this series, expect them to come from his end. That can be good, but it can also be a bit of a curse. No one will ever accuse Sutter of overthinking it. McLellan, on the other hand? Maybe.
But in the end, I think these teams are as evenly matched behind the bench as they are on it.
Special teams will no doubt play a role in this series, but don't expect it to be a big one. These are two teams that make their hay at even-strength. The Kings are the top Corsi team in the NHL. The Sharks aren't far behind. Both clubs treat the powerplay like an unnecessary distraction from their favourite thing -- five-on-five play.
The Kings are as bad at scoring on the powerplay as they are at even-strength, with a 27th-ranked PP at 15.1%. The Sharks aren't much better at 20th, but they're better.
San Jose's penalty-kill is better too, at 84.9%, 6th in the NHL and secondin the west. LA kills 83.1% of penalties, good for 11th.
SERIES SLOW JAM
"Put a Little Umph in it" - Jagged Edge
A series this tight will be won by the team that is able to put the most "umph" in it, in this hockey writer's expert opinion.
Players to watch.
SWIPE LEFT ON... Dustin Brown. During the Kings' Cup run, he was the catalyst, but he's fallen down to the third line this season, and doesn't look like nearly the difference-maker he once was. If the Kings go out in Round 1, Brown will be pointed to as the guy that couldn't raise his level of play.
SWIPE RIGHT ON... Tomas Hertl. The Czech phenom is back, and he makes everything fall into place. Once again, the Sharks are a three-line team. But more than that, he injects some youthful enthusiasm and looseness into a group that tends to clutch their sticks a little tighter in the postseason.
This one's a toss-up, but in the end, the ability to score goals tends to matter, and the Sharks have that. It's going to be a tight series, and likely a low-scoring series, but I trust the team with the most Joes to chip in the timely goals and leave this thing with 4 wins in 7 tries.
Sharks in seven.