Tonight marks the beginning of the fourth playoff series between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings since 2011.
San Jose beat LA in six games back in 2011, but the Kings were without star center Anze Kopitar and had yet to acquire Jeff Carter. These two are without a doubt the best 1-2 center combination in the entire National Hockey League.
The next two matchups saw the Kings win twice in seven games, although you could argue San Jose deserved a better fate in the 2013 series. San Jose was the better team in each of the first four games but the series was tied 2-2 going into Game 5.
And finally, everyone remembers the Sharks collapse two years ago in 2014. The Sharks went up 3-0 in the series before LA stormed back to become just the fourth team ever to advance after losing the first three games.
So why have I picked the Sharks to win this time around? The Kings may have dominated the entire league in terms of puck possession this year, but there are a number of reasons why San Jose is my choice to move on.
Los Angeles finished tops in the league in pretty much any iteration of Corsi or Fenwick by about a country mile by possession standards. Even in the second half alone, the Kings' Fenwick-for percentage of 57 was three points higher than San Jose's 54. However, for all the time the Kings controlled the puck, they were only the 14th highest scoring team in the league at 2.72 goals per game. San Jose finished fourth at 2.89 goals per game. If the Sharks can keep the possession game in this series relatively even, they will have the advantage because they executed better in terms of scoring when they do have the puck.
Part of the reason the Sharks score at a better clip is in part due to a better power play. Despite the Kings boasting some elite offensive talent in their own right, the Sharks have historically had the better man advantage and that was no different this season. San Jose finished third in the league at 22.5%. Los Angeles finished eighth at 20.0%.
As for penalty killing units, the Kings finished at 81.4% this season compared to the Sharks at 80.5%. The math is simple, a slight edge overall on special teams has to go to the Sharks.
An even bigger reason to pick the Sharks over the Kings in this series is that unlike in years past, the Sharks have a stronger blue line than the Kings. Los Angeles has been known for a deep, smothering defense in their two Stanley Cup victories over the last four seasons. While they have found away to remain a dominant possession team this season, their defense doesn't quite have the same depth.
Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin are elite, but their partners this season Alex Martinez and Brayden McNabb aren't at the same level. Sure, the Kings did finish with a 2.34 GAA compared to the Sharks' 2.52, but man to man, the Sharks' third and fourth best defensemen Justin Braun and Paul Martin are markedly better than Martinez and McNabb. You could also make a case that Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns are better top-two defenseman than Doughty and Muzzin. At-worst Vlasic and Burns are equally as valuable to the Sharks as Doughty and Muzzin are to the Kings. Doughty is getting lots of Norris Trophy love this season but both Vlasic and Burns have had Norris tied to them as well.
As for the third pairs, each team is equally bad. The Sharks believe trade deadline acquistion Roman Polak helps them against the Kings with his physicality but both he and partner Brenden Dillon struggle to move the puck. Likewise, the Kings have an ancient and clearly over-the-hill Rob Scuderi and Luke Schenn. These pairs are basically a wash because they are both really, really bad. However, both teams could and probably should go with a wrinkle. San Jose has the more offensive minded Dylan Demelo as their seventh defenseman and the Kings recently got Jamie McBain back in the lineup for the final four games of the season. It really is too bad that neither Pete DeBoer nor Darryl Sutter seem to trust these two defenseman. If one of these coaches has the smarts to play their third-pair puck mover instead of scratching him, it will make a positive difference in possession. McBain has a ridiculous amount of offensive zone starts and just 12:14 average TOI this year. Demelo similarly averages just 13:37.
Jonathan Quick is overrated. Yeah, I said it. He has had a couple of playoff series where he was unbelievably on fire. However, he was miserable in the first part of that series in 2014 and while he is a really good goalie, he is not Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price nor Braden Holtby. He can be beaten. Quick's save percentage this season of .918 is exactly the same as his former backup Martin Jones. Now with the Sharks, Jones has been the No. 1 for San Jose and has been a big time upgrade over Antti Niemi.
Due to his playoff experience, some will say the goaltending in this series is advantage Quick. I'm not a big advocate for experience making a player better. Connor McDavid is arguably the best player in the NHL at 18 years old. Age is just a number in a league trending younger seemingly every season. Furthermore, when it comes to Jones, the Sharks goaltender is known for being even keeled. The playoff atmosphere will not be too much for the 25-year old. The goaltending matchup in this series is a wash.
Depth Scoring & X-Factor Potential
Vincent Lecavalier has had a resurgence in offense since being shipped to the Kings in the middle of the year, but I just don't buy the Kings' third and fourth lines anymore. In years past, Jarret Stoll and Justin Williams were thorns in the side of the Sharks. Those two are no longer in Los Angeles and the Sharks have a far better bottom-six than they have had the last couple years. Patrick Marleau is now centering the third line and the fourth line often featuring Chris Tierney and Dainius Zubrus has been able to play effective hockey at both ends.
While not bottom-six players per se, the Sharks have more potential for a depth forward to get hot and be a big time difference maker in this series. Rookie sensation Joonas Donskoi and veteran playoff-stud Joel Ward have been sandwiching Logan Couture lately on San Jose's second line. These guys might get out-played in this series by puck possession but they have the ability to make something out of nothing real quick. Donskoi is amazing with the puck on his stick, incredibly creative and Ward just has that knack for scoring clutch playoff goals.
Kings captain Dustin Brown had a crazy good year possession wise, but only scored 28 points. LA's group of depth scoring forwards, guys like Lecavalier, Brown, Marian Gaborik and Tanner Pearson are no doubt talented, but injuries and age have prevented all these guys from being the best versions of themselves. In this series, I'll definitely take the likes of Donskoi, Ward, Patrick Marleau and Melker Karlsson to make a bigger positive difference for the Sharks.
It will be interesting to see how the top-six lines and top-four defense matchup. With the last change during home games, how will each coach lean? With both teams relatively healthy, I wouldn't think the matching would be that big of a deal. However, Couture has been able to get under the skin of the much bigger Milan Lucic (the Sharks went 3-1-1 vs LA in the regular season). If Lucic is playing on Kopitar's wing (which is likely), then if I'm DeBoer, my choice is to get the Couture line out with the Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun pair against Lucic and Kopitar. That then sets up Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski to play more often with Brent Burns and Paul Martin against the Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli duo.
Sharks win the series in six games.