The San Jose Sharks slightly lowered their odds of facing the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs...by defeating the Kings, 2-1, on home ice. Even running the table over their final four games would only give the Sharks a 40% chance of overtaking Anaheim for the top seed in the Pacific Division, and thereby postponing a meeting with the club that knocked them out of the postseason a year ago for at least another round, but San Jose took a step towards accomplishing that tonight with a win that probably provided more questions than answers.
Those questions primarily being: is there a line in Scott Hannan's contract that guarantees him a spot in the lineup every time the Sharks face the Kings? Why are we still pretending James Sheppard is capable of centering the third line of a team with Cup aspirations when he can't even outplay Jarret Stoll? Why was the Joe Thornton line unable to establish a forecheck and create chances even while seldom matched up against Anze Kopitar? And, most importantly assuming these teams do meet in the first round, how long is Drew Doughty out with an "upper-body" injury?
Last things first, Doughty left the game with an apparent shoulder injury after a hit on Tyler Kennedy early in the first period. For once, a Kennedy came out on the right side of an assassination attempt (GIF via Steph):
If Doughty is out, or even less than 100%, for the playoffs that's huge news. He's the Kings' best defenseman by about as wide a margin as Marc-Edouard Vlasic is the Sharks' top blueliner; taking him out of the lineup makes Los Angeles a far less fearsome opponent.
As for the other questions raised by this win, Hannan looked dreadful alongside Dan Boyle during a first period the Sharks spent almost exclusively in their own zone. As uneven as Matt Irwin's season has been, he's pretty clearly the better option on a pairing with Boyle and was coming off a great game (albeit against a weak opponent) on Tuesday. Swapping him with Hannan was a curious move. As was maintaining the illusion that Sheppard is capable of centering a third line; his lost faceoff and poor defensive-zone awareness led to the Jordan Nolan goal that opened the scoring for L.A. and the Sharks were outshot 16-6 (including misses and blocks) when he was on the ice at even-strength despite him mainly facing off against the Kings' third and fourth lines. He isn't the answer at third-line center, regardless of how an anomalous on-ice shooting percentage has shifted the perception of him in the eyes of fans, media and even the coaching staff.
Regarding the final remaining question, the Thornton line has had exactly two good games since the win over Anaheim two weeks ago and both were against the bottom-feeding Oilers. That doesn't inspire confidence and should signal to Todd McLellan and company that it's time for a change. I know I sound like a broken internet at this point but simply moving Joe Pavelski to the third line would solve a lot of what's been ailing this team recently. Can they beat the Kings with their current setup? Well they just did tonight, so it's clearly possible. As the Sharks are well aware, the playoffs aren't fair and the low-scoring games Los Angeles is usually involved in provide the opportunity for a bounce here or there to decide things.
But if they want to rely on more than pure chance, the Sharks need to take a serious look at what let them down last spring. A suspension to Raffi Torres and injury to Marty Havlat left the team with little forward depth and, as a result, a near-useless bottom six. Assuming Torres is available for the playoffs, they have the depth up front to avoid icing poor third and fourth lines this time around as long as they configure their lineup properly. Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau were terrific in shutting down Anze Kopitar tonight; two other scoring lines capable of capitalizing on the easier minutes Couture going head-to-head with Kopitar opens up would put San Jose in a position to dictate play in most games.
The opposite happened tonight. So as much as the two points here aid the Sharks in their realistically futile quest to avoid L.A. in round one, there are lessons to be learned from this game to ensure San Jose a better fate against their southern California rival than they suffered a year ago.
- Antti Niemi hasn't had a good season by his standards, but he was terrific tonight. He'll never be the most technically sound goalie so some of his stops, particularly a late save on Anze Kopitar that he didn't seem to be aware of the location of after he stopped it, were somewhat heart-racing but he thwarted several grade-A Kings scoring chances.
- People will make a big deal of the 52 hits the Sharks were credited for (a new franchise record) but it seems like that was mainly a product of rarely having the puck and specifically planning to target the Kings (and, much as no one would explicitly admit it, injure some players) in the likely event these teams meet in the playoffs. In either case, it definitely doesn't indicate the Sharks played well here.
- With the exception of Marleau and Couture, that is. They were tasked with starting the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone and being hard-matched against two-way force Anze Kopitar and came up aces, forcing the Kings' top line to spend many of its shifts against them chasing the puck around the defensive zone. Those two were so effective against the Kopitar line through two periods that Darryl Sutter took Justin Williams off that unit in the third.
- Joe Thornton "fought" Kings defenseman Slava Voynov, presumably because Drew Doughty was out of the game. You'd think their matching penalties would be a bad trade-off for the Sharks but it temporarily left Matt Greene as Los Angeles' only right-side defenseman which was pretty hilarious.
- San Jose was whistled for five non-matching minor penalties in this one, two of which came in the offensive zone. L.A. is actually third in the league in penalties drawn this season, just five behind the first-place Sharks. I think special teams is the one area where the Sharks have a major edge on the Kings so ensuring the penalty differential swings in their favor will be an obvious key for San Jose in the first round.
- Nashville's up next on Saturday but the Preds make a stop in Orange County tomorrow night first. If the Predators can somehow pull off the win there, followed by the Sharks capitalizing on Nashville playing its second game in as many nights, the division title will start looking a bit more plausible. But, ultimately, those untimely losses to Florida, Washington, Calgary, Winnipeg and Colorado over the past two weeks have likely doomed the Sharks to a first-round date with the Kings.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: Logan Couture
2nd Star: Antti Niemi
3rd Star: Jarret Stoll