Can we trust the 2016 Sharks to bury the Kings this time? Or could we see a 2014 collapse all over again?
“This time is different. I know we said last time was different, and it turned out to not be, but trust me, THIS time is different.”
That’s the sentiment the San Jose Sharks, from their players to their front office to their fan base, finally want to believe. But the Sharks, of course, have been the poster child for falling short of colossal playoff expectations throughout this millennium.
They made the post-season 10 straight times from 2003-04 to 2013-14, never finishing with a points percentage below .585 and topping 100 points seven times, or eight if you pro-rate 2012-13. They bowed out in three conference finals, four times in Round 2 and three times in Round 1. Most famously, they flopped in jaw-dropping fashion just two years ago against the Los Angeles Kings. San Jose led the series 3-0. It had Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick on the run, playing some of the worst hockey of his career. But Quick and the Kings as a whole rallied. They became the fourth team in NHL history to come back and win a series after trailing 3-0. They went all the way and won the Stanley Cup. It appeared halfway through that series “this time was different” for the Sharks. Instead, they cemented the choker reputation further.
You know what question comes next. Are the Sharks different this time now that they’ve jumped out to a 2-0 lead on L.A. in Round 1 of the 2016 playoffs? We can’t know for certain. We can, however, examine the facts surrounding the 2014 and 2016 series to unearth similarities and differences.
IN THE SHARKS’ FAVOR THIS TIME…
1. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is healthy. For now.
Vlasic was San Jose’s most important blueliner in 2014. He logged more than 20 minutes a contest, he led the Sharks D-corps in shorthanded minutes per game, and he won a gold medal with Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics. He had the league’s third-best on-ice shot attempt differential that year. A Jarret Stoll hit knocked Vlasic out of Game 5, and he never returned in the series. It was a huge blow for a Sharks team facing the NHL’s top possession squad at the time. The 2016 Sharks? Completely healthy and armed with a better overall blueline, as Paul Martin, Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak have since joined the fray.
2. This time the Sharks went up 2-0…on the road.
It’s one thing to open a series with two straight home victories. The 2014 Sharks were the higher seed and opened with two wins at the SAP Center. But as the old saying goes, you’re not in trouble in the playoffs until you lose a home game, so the Kings didn’t have immediate reason to panic after Game 2. The 2016 Sharks go back to the SAP Center already up 2-0. They only have to win two of the next five games, and three of the next four will go down in San Jose.
3. Joel Ward now plays hockey for the San Jose Sharks.
Bruising power forward Ward, signed as a free agent over the summer, averages 0.44 points per game in his regular season career. Playoffs? Try 0.67. He elevates his play like a poor man’s Justin Williams. Ward’s propensity to deliver in the clutch and his fearless, physical style suit him perfectly for trench warfare against L.A. Ward already has two points in two games, and he’s posted an impressive Corsi percentage of 58.3.
4. San Jose’s goaltending is much, much better.
The Sharks’ crease was a mess entering the 2014 playoffs. Starter Antti Niemi posted a .900 save percentage in his final 10 regular season appearances. He got the nod for the playoffs over Alex Stalock nonetheless and was adequate in Games 1 to 3, but the wheels fell off in Games 4 and 5. Niemi allowed eight goals in 60 minutes over a two-game span in which he was hooked for Stalock twice. Stalock started Game 6 and allowed four goals of his own. Turning back to Niemi for Game 7 solved little.
The 2016 Sharks are better and deeper in goal. Martin Jones excelled in his first full season as a starter and has looked plenty competent over Games 1 and 2, stopping 47 of 51 shots for a .922 SP. San Jose also has a much improved fallback option in James Reimer, who played as well as any goalie in the league once he came over in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
5. Oh, baby, that power play.
San Jose finished a pedestrian 19th in power play efficiency two seasons ago at 17.2 percent. It carried over into the playoffs, where the Sharks sputtered at 12.5 percent versus L.A. The 2015-16 Sharks’ power play is so good, it could be used as stock footage in instructional power play videos. It hummed along at 22.5 percent and scored twice in nine opportunities over Games 1 and 2 against the Kings. The top unit of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns is downright terrifying.
6. The Sharks’ best players are better than ever.
San Jose arguably has three stars who could receive Hart Trophy votes this season. Thornton was a top-five all-around player in the game, enjoying his best season in at least half a decade. Brent Burns smashed single-season offensive records for Sharks D-men. Pavelski has quietly become a top-10 player in the game. The Sharks’ best are better than they were two years ago.
The 2016 edition of the Sharks thus has a lot more going for it than the team that blew a 3-0 lead in 2014. That said, San Jose isn’t without its warts.
WORKING AGAINST THE SHARKS THIS TIME…
1. The Sharks are road warriors – and they struggle at home.
Here’s a double-take stat for you: San Jose won an absurd 28 games on the road this season. That led the league, needless to say. At home, they had a losing record of 18-20-3. They are the only team in the playoffs with a losing home record. Each of the other 15 teams won at least 21 games in their own barns. So while historical playoff data suggests opening 2-0 on the road drastically increases a team’s chances of winning, home is not the safe haven for San Jose that it is for most teams. The Sharks have some of the most bizarre home/road splits in recent memory.
2. The Kings are as much the Kings as they’ve ever been.
The Sharks aren’t taking on a markedly depleted or different L.A. squad. The Kings’ team identity hasn’t changed at all since the last time the two teams met, unless you count the loss of Justin Williams. L.A. remains absolutely dominant in the possession game. It led the NHL in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi at 56.8 percent this season. It’s the fourth straight time the Kings have done so, and they’ve never finished lower than second in the Darryl Sutter era. The correlation between Corsi and long-term playoff success is deeply established now. At even strength 5-on-5 over the first two games, they posted a superior Corsi percentage to San Jose’s. The Kings have the overall edge in chances and attempts.
They also rely on the same pillars they did two years ago, from Quick in net to Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin on defense to Anze Kopitar in the first-line center role, with Milan Lucic added to the mix this time as well. The series will have to come down to how much San Jose has changed, as L.A. certainly has not. This is the same beast of a team that came back from a 3-0 deficit.
3. There’s still no comparison to Quick.
Even if Jones and/or Reimer constitute major goaltending upgrades, there remain few if any goalies alive today more reliable in a do-or-die game than Quick. The Kings will always have the advantage in that scenario. The longer the series goes, the more pressure Jones might feel and the more Quick should thrive.
There is none. It appears the Sharks really do have their best shot at dethroning L.A. yet, but the Kings have the ability to rally for the same reasons they always do. They remain who we think they are.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin