For the second year in a row, and third year in five, the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings will square off in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Unlike the two previous iterations of the Battle of California, both teams enter this series almost completely healthy, although all bets are off on that front as soon as the puck drops on Game 1. By almost every relevant measure, these were two of the best teams in the NHL this season and it seems patently unfair that one of them will be knocked out in the first round. Here are five ways the Sharks can ensure the Kings will be the team to suffer an early exit.
Injured Sharks will be key to beating L.A.
San Jose has plenty of big-name firepower, but against a defensive-minded Los Angeles Kings, three oft-injured depth players can tip the scales in the Sharks' favor.
1. Turn the series into a special teams fest
As was the case against Vancouver in the first round a year ago, the one area where the Sharks have a significant edge over the Kings is on special teams. While the Sharks suffered from a woeful shooting percentage on the power play for most of the regular season, there isn't much reason to think that was more than a run of bad luck; their puck and player movement, particularly their innovative transition from an overload to an umbrella setup every time the puck goes from low to high, was as strong as it was when San Jose led the NHL in 5-on-4 goals scored from 2008-2013. For the fifth year running, the Sharks sat atop the league in power play shot rate, the best predictor of future power play performance. So despite the team's 20th-place finish in power play percentage, it's clear they still have the potential to be deadly on the man-advantage, and were that down the stretch after shuffling Brent Burns onto the top unit. It's unlikely they'll score on less than 10% of their power play shots going forward and while the same can be said for the Kings, who are better on the power play than their 27th-place efficiency percentage would suggest, L.A. generates shots at about a league-average rate, far below San Jose.
There's a similar discrepancy between the teams' penalty kills as well. Only the Canucks, Blues and Flyers allowed 4-on-5 shots at a lower rate than the Sharks this season while the Kings were, again, about average in that department. The point I'm getting to here is that, while the Kings certainly deserve to be considered the superior even-strength club, they aren't much better than league-average on special teams while the Sharks are downright dominant. San Jose needs to use that to their advantage in this series and the best way to do so is to ensure as much of the series is played on special teams as possible. One thing working in the Sharks' favor is that the Kings were shorthanded more often than all but two other teams this season while San Jose earned the third-most power play opportunities in the league. As long as that standard of officiating holds in the postseason (and while observers are generally skeptical that it will, the facts suggest referees are pretty damn consistent between the regular season and playoffs), the Sharks should have the chance to flex their power play muscle.
While conventional wisdom dictates that being pushed around is an easy way to lose a playoff series, the Sharks ought not to care all that much about Dustin Brown, Kyle Clifford or Matt Greene's post-whistle antics, on-ice embellishment or borderline stickwork. If L.A. plans to make this a penalty-filled series, that's an outcome the Sharks should welcome. If this series is decided on special teams, the Sharks will win it.
2. Move Joe Pavelski back to third-line center
Over the course of their series loss to the Kings last year, the Sharks received exactly zero goals from their bottom-six forwards. If the line combinations from yesterday's practice are what we see throughout this year's matchup, history shouldn't have much trouble repeating itself. Particularly with Tomas Hertl and Raffi Torres in the fold, shifting Joe Pavelski back to third-line center seems like a glaringly obvious move but it's apparent the coaching staff doesn't agree. We went over in detail last week how poorly James Sheppard has played at center, and how some crooked on-ice percentages made him look better in that role than he actually was. The Sharks' history is rife with devastating playoff losses but squandering a season because James Sheppard ran hot for a couple of weeks in March would take the cake.
Hertl proved he could hold his own alongside Joe Thornton and Brent Burns on the Sharks' top line early in the season and while it may take a while for him to get his legs under him after returning to the lineup for the first time in four months last Friday, there's no reason to think he won't be able to do that again. That would allow Todd McLellan to deploy a killer third line, consisting of Pavelski between Raffi Torres and Tommy Wingels, that should be able to outscore and dictate play against their L.A. counterpart which features Jarret Stoll and Dustin Brown. Speaking of Brown, keeping Hertl on the third line would ensure him plenty of ice time against the man who knocked him out of the lineup; that's far from the only reason the coaching staff should rethink its current combos but it's worth noting all the same. Perhaps the lines the Sharks practiced with yesterday were meant to throw off the Kings, perhaps they were an acknowledgement that Hertl and Torres still have work to do to reclaim their ideal lineup spots or perhaps they were kept stable for the sake of convenience and will evolve going forward. I don't know. But I hope it's one of those because we've seen how the Sharks fare against the Kings in the playoffs when their bottom six can't contribute.
3. Don't value "grit" over skill just because your opponent is the Kings
This axiom applies against just about any opponent but it's especially relevant against Los Angeles. Much like what happened when the Boston Bruins won the 2011 Stanley Cup, a mythology has been constructed around the Kings in the aftermath of their 2012 championship that suggests they won it all because they were mean, tough and physical. Not because they were the most dominant puck possession team in the league by a country mile after adding Jeff Carter (and jettisoning Jack Johnson) at the deadline that year, not because Anze Kopitar at center and Drew Doughty on the blueline is the best one-two punch in the NHL this side of Bergeron and Chara, not because Jonathan Quick posted an unreal .946 SV% in the 2012 playoffs. They won because they hit people. This is a harmless, if inane, narrative on its own but when it starts to affect opposing coaches' lineup decisions it's time to take a step back.
The Kings are certainly a very physical team and their dominant possession game is in part a byproduct of their ability to brutalize opposing defensemen on the forecheck. But the players who carry the mantle for the Kings from a physical perspective—guys like Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Willie Mitchell—also have tons of skill. Attempting to counter that by dressing physical players with next to no NHL-level hockey ability to speak of like Mike Brown, Bracken Kearns, Scott Hannan and (when healthy) Adam Burish is just playing right into the Kings' hands. The margin between these teams is razor-thin; getting a goal or two from the fourth line—something the Sharks, as mentioned earlier, couldn't manufacture last spring—would go a long way towards winning the series. That's not coming from a fourth line consisting of Mike Brown and Bracken Kearns; it could come from one that features James Sheppard and Tyler Kennedy.
Speaking of Kennedy, sitting him in favor of one of the plugs would be a particularly bad decision. He finished second on the team in penalty differential this season and only Joe Pavelski and Andrew Desjardins drew more penalties overall. San Jose's success in this series hinges greatly on their power play; even if Kennedy contributes nothing else, putting the Sharks on the man-advantage a handful of times over the course of the series would be far more valuable than any sort of "physical presence" Mike Brown brings. Similarly, Matt Irwin (in addition to forming a far more successful even-strength partnership with Dan Boyle than Scott Hannan has been able to) is key to the second power play unit having any success whatsoever; he should be in the lineup over Hannan regardless of the latter's rugged style of play. It's disappointing that this even has to be said but the Sharks need to outscore the Kings more than they need to outhit them and therefore need to prioritize icing a lineup that gives them the best possible chance at accomplishing the former above all else.
4. Ride Marc-Edouard Vlasic into the ground
Marc-Edouard Vlasic was the Sharks' best defenseman this season by about as wide a margin as any defenseman in the league was their team's best option on the blueline. So it's curious that he averaged under 21 minutes a game, ranking just 82nd among defensemen in average ice time. Granted, Vlasic doesn't have the offensive ability to play on the power play but even his even-strength ice time per game ranked 65th, behind defensemen like Danny DeKeyser and Brooks Orpik. Perhaps this was part of a long-term strategy by Todd McLellan to limit Vlasic's ice time in the regular season to ensure he could ride him in the playoffs without risking the kind of injury Vlasic suffered a year ago. Regardless of whether or not that was the plan going into the year, it should be the plan now.
L.A.'s biggest edge in this series is on defense, where the Sharks don't have anyone who can match the two-way ability of Drew Doughty and are set to ice a third pairing that pales in comparison to the Kings' Mitchell-Martinez duo. But the Kings' second pairing of Robyn Regehr and Slava Voynov is vulnerable; if the Sharks can avoid second pairing doldrums of their own by spelling Brad Stuart with Vlasic for the occasional shift or two, particularly when protecting a lead, that might help the Sharks bridge the overall gap in blueline quality. We know Vlasic excels regardless of who he's paired with; double-shifting him with Justin Braun and Dan Boyle from time to time wouldn't be a bad idea, even if it means his overall ice time creeps towards the 23-minute mark. If the Sharks can get past the Kings, their second-round opponent (regardless of whether it's the Ducks or Stars) will be far weaker than L.A. Rest Vlasic then, not during this bloodbath of a series.
5. Hand the keys to the crease over to Antti Niemi
This isn't to suggest the Sharks will have made a horrible misstep if Alex Stalock is in net for Game 1. Far from it. Stalock was fantastic this season in a backup role, posting an impressive .932 SV% on 571 shots. But the key words in that sentence are "571 shots." It's nearly impossible to know what Stalock's true talent level is at the NHL level. His .907 career AHL SV% suggests pegging him as even a NHL-average starting goalie in the long term is awfully optimistic. For all his struggles this season Antti Niemi, on the other hand, is at least a league-average starter. Among the 47 goaltenders who have faced at least 3000 shots since Niemi entered the league, the Sharks' Finnish netminder ranks 16th in save percentage. Despite his aesthetically unpleasing style, despite his poor lateral mobility, despite his tendency to give up rather unsavory goals, Niemi can stop the goddamn puck at a high rate relative to his peers and has done so for five years. That's ultimately all you want in a goaltender.
The reality is that any pro-caliber goalie can run hot over a sample of less than 600 shots; it's possible Stalock is a star netminder playing to his potential set to pull a Cam Ward, grab the starting role and lead the Sharks to a Stanley Cup. But it's far more likely he's one of the dozens of goaltenders every year who put up great numbers in limited action before crashing back down to earth the following season. Stalock provides some additional value with his terrific puck-handling ability (although, quantifiably, it's not a whole lot) and there's no reason he can't stay hot for four to seven more games but when you're making a bet on future performance—and that's what Todd McLellan is doing here—you go with the proven starter over the wild card. Look no further than the very Kings team the Sharks are facing; Jonathan Quick had a far worse season last year than Niemi did this year, posting an awful .902 SV% in the regular season. Darryl Sutter had every opportunity to go with his talented-but-inexperienced backup Jonathan Bernier in the playoffs but instead stuck with Quick and was rewarded for it, as Quick led the team past the Sharks to the conference final.
There's nothing wrong with McLellan being coy about his Game 1 starter, as it puts both Niemi and the Kings on their toes, but he ultimately needs to go with the guy who's proven he can get it done over a sizable body of work, regardless of Niemi's struggles this season.