The San Jose Sharks (51-22-9) look to make 2014 ‘their year’ after another solid regular season, but a bitter rival stands in their way: The Los Angeles Kings (46-28-8) just one season after ending the Sharks’ playoff hopes in 2013.
#2 San Jose Sharks vs. #3 L.A. Kings
Season Series: Los Angeles 3-1-1
It was another great regular season cut short by a lack-luster playoff performance by the Sharks in 2013, and they were ousted by none other than the Kings in the second round. Keeping much of their roster intact, the Sharks entered the 2013-14 season searching for consistency throughout their regular season, and a high seed heading into the playoffs.
Up front, the Sharks are led by the aging but powerful core of Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, and Joe Thornton. Young gun Logan Couture struggled with injury during the regular season, playing 65 games. Rookie Tomas Hertl had his dynamite start to the season cut short with a devastating knee injury, and returned to play the final two games of the Sharks’ regular season. With a career year from Pavelski (41 goals, third in the entire NHL), the Sharks’ top line is only more dangerous, backed up by solid depth that includes Tyler Kennedy, James Sheppard, and Tommy Wingels, who all set career-highs in offensive stats during the season.
The Sharks had one of the best net-minders in the game this season, Antti Niemi. Niemi finished second in the NHL in wins (39), playing 64 games, also the second-highest league wide. Niemi averaged a better save percentage this season than in 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks, in a year where he took the team all the way to the Stanley Cup. Alex Stalock has been a pleasant surprise for the team, after trading back-up Tomas Griess in the off-season. Stalock’s blistering .932% save percentage in 24 games is second among all rookie goal-tenders.
On defense, the Sharks saw a drop in production from the aging Dan Boyle, but Marc-Edouard Vlasic played the best hockey of his career in 2013-14, finishing with a +31 rating, and winning a gold medal with Team Canada in Sochi. Jason Demers and Justin Braun have also had break-out seasons, coupled with consistency from Scott Irwin and Brad Stuart. With an average height of over 6-foot-1, the Sharks’ blue-line is one of the most imposing in the league, and all play a solid 200-foot game.
The Sharks have never made it past the Western Conference Final, with their last try ending in a loss to the Vancouver Canucks in 2011. With Thornton, Boyle, Niemi, and Marleau all over age 30, 2014 may be one of their last chances at post-season success.
Backstop: Antti Niemi (39-17-7, .914% save percentage, 2.39 GAA) will handle most of the duty during the playoffs, as one of the only Sharks with a Stanley Cup ring. Don’t be surprised if Alex Stalock makes a start in his rookie playoff run, however.
X-Factor: Can Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle finally get over the hump, and get on to the Stanley Cup Final? With another successful regular season under their belts, it is certainly possible, but the Sharks have faltered here before. One of their toughest tests of the post-season may be the Kings themselves.
The Kings had their chances for a repeat as Champions ended abruptly by the Chicago Blackhawks in last season’s Western Conference Final, but the 2012 Cup Champs carry the same core into the 2014 post-season that brought them so much success two years ago.
Los Angeles’ hard-hitting offense has been tough for many teams to handle all season long, led by captain Dustin Brown. Brown, a third-line center, is the teams’ emotional leader, and finished with 246 hits, the ninth-highest total of any player this season. Anze Kopitar has been the Kings’ most dangerous weapon all season, finishing with a team-high 70 points, including four in his final three games. Jeff Carter earned himself an Olympic invitation after another solid season, and acquiring Marian Gaborik mid-way through the year has brought even more balance and skill to the Kings’ lineup. Their forwards seem matched to take on the Sharks’ defense quite well, with an average height also around 6-foot-1.
The Kings’ undisputed leader on defense is Drew Doughty, finishing with nearly identical goals and points totals as the 2012 championship season. Doughty hasn’t played since April 3rd, but is expected to return for the series. After Doughty, the Kings’ defense has proved to be one of the deepest in the league, with Willie Mitchell, Slava Voynov, Matt Greene, and Alec Martinez all with consistent production in the offensive and defensive zones.
The Kings’ goaltending tandem proved to be the best in the NHL this season, walking away with the Jennings Trophy as the best combined save-percentage of any two goaltenders. Starter Jonathan Quick was in old form,, walking away with 6 shutouts in only 49 games, due to injury. Rookie Martin Jones was the league’s top back-up this season, with a .934% save percentage, ahead of the Sharks’ Stalock. Jones put up four shutouts in his first NHL season, including a 17-save goose-egg in his final game of the regular season on April 10th.
The Kings’ power-play (15.1%) was shockingly inefficient during the regular season, with only Buffalo, Carolina, and Florida holding worse conversion percentages. Their penalty-kill was also out of the top 10, finishing 11th at 81%. Head Coach Darryl Sutter is climbing up the all-time wins list with 15 seasons as a NHL head coach under his belt.
Backstop: Jonathan Quick (27-17-4, .915% save percentage, 2.07 GAA) is one of the hottest goaltenders in the game, and was the difference-maker in the Kings’ 2012 Cup run. Just like the Sharks and Stalock, Martin Jones could also see playoff action in his first NHL season.
X-Factor: Special Teams: With one of the worst combined special teams in the entire NHL this season, will the Kings be able to find offense or shut down the Sharks in a tight-scoring series where every goal matters?
Ex-Jets: None. Although their roster sports no Manitoba natives, Mike Richards is from nearby Kenora, Ontario.
Prediction Sure To Go Wrong:
The Sharks have been one of the most consistent teams all season long, and with Hertl finally back in the fold, their offense looks as dangerous as it has all season long. The Sharks take this series in Game Seven, with Joe Pavelski scoring the series-clinching goal.
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