Expect fireworks when the Kings meet the Sharks. It could be the best, and closest, series of the first round and the winner will be an instant Cup favourite.
SERIES STARTS: Thursday, 10:30 p.m. ET, in Los Angeles.
HOW THEY WIN:
KINGS: The Kings like to take the puck from the opening faceoff and hang onto it for the next 60 minutes or so. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s the mindset of a puck possession team under the direction of coach Darryl Sutter. Los Angeles leads the NHL in outshooting the opposition – its difference of 4.8 in shots for versus shots against easily outdistances the next best, Nashville and Carolina at 3.3.
The Kings have some talented offensive weapons in Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli, but their production as a whole is just league average. It’s more about suppressing the other team – L.A. is top five in goals against a third consecutive season, led by goalie Jonathan Quick and shutdown defensive aces Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin. And the burly Kings are at their best when they play a heavy game. It’s a big reason why they’ve won 10 of their past 11 playoff series.
SHARKS: The Sharks get offense from a good depth of sources and are among the top teams in the league with the man advantage. San Jose has found a winning routine is splitting its most dangerous scoring weapons – Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau – on three separate lines, sprinkling in productive second-tier wingers Joel Ward, Tomas Hertl and Joonas Donskoi. When you add in the game’s No. 1 scoring rover…er…defenseman, Brent Burns, it’s futile to deploy just one or two shutdown lines on the Sharks.
San Jose also beefed up its D-corps the past couple years to the point that proven stalwarts such as Paul Martin, Justin Braun, Roman Polak and Brenden Dillon don’t need to perform over their heads playing first-pair minutes behind stars Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
HOW THEY LOSE:
KINGS: Teams with the best chance of beating the Kings in a seven-game series need a combination of speed, creativity and discipline. Stretching out the suffocating L.A. defense with quick puck movement and pinpoint passing can set the Kings on their heels in their own zone. Composed play should be paramount in facing them. Taking power play opportunities away from Los Angeles takes away a chunk of its offensive chances. No team is better at playing with a lead the past several seasons than the Kings. They’re content with 1-0 games. So getting off to a quick start by opening the scoring is vitally important.
SHARKS: Even when accomplished goaltending names Evgeni Nabokov and Antti Niemi were reliable and stingy during the regular season, their play typically slipped in the playoffs. And that’s a big reason why the Sharks have only twice gotten past the second round since the 2004-05 lockout. So the spotlight will shine on Martin Jones this post-season. Even though he has proven himself as a top-10 No. 1 goalie these past six months, none of that will matter if he comes up flat in April and May.
The corollary of experience is an aging roster, prone to getting beat by speed. San Jose’s Big Seven veterans average more than 1,000 regular season games and near 35 years old. Multiple long series will wear this team down.
KINGS: One of the great mysteries of hockey is how all-world defenseman DREW DOUGHTY has never won a Norris Trophy as top defenseman – and how he’s finished in the top five in voting just twice in seven seasons. That’s bound to change this year, regardless of how the Kings do. Doughty is a game changer from the blueline. He sets the tone with his prescient hockey sense, has a composure level that is off the charts and is smooth, gritty and efficient in his own end. Coach Sutter must be tempted to push fate and play him 30-plus minutes a game in the clutch.
SHARKS: Only 35 forwards in the NHL had more goals than San Jose defenseman extraordinaire BRENT BURNS. The probable Norris Trophy finalist not only provides an extra wave of offense for about 26 minutes every game, he’s also rock solid in his own end and tough as nails along the walls. Offensive defensemen are a bit of an unknown in the post-season, with its tighter-checking style of play, but Burns will be impossible to neutralize in all three zones because of the nature of his strengths.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn
Another California Classic means another series watching two of the league’s best centers face off. Anze Kopitar gets a lot of hype – and rightfully so – but Joe Thornton has been his statistical equal over the past few seasons, and sometimes even superior as is the case this season. Kopitar scores more goals than Thornton, but no one dishes it off as well or as often as Jumbo Joe. On the shot-rate side, this was an odd down year for Kopitar as he’s usually among the league’s best. For Thornton, it was just another day at the office as he situated himself atop the league’s leaderboard for relative Corsi percentage. Thornton doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his elite play, but maybe that changes if his Sharks beat an elite Kings team led by Kopitar.
THN’s pick: KINGS.