For the second time in three seasons, the Sharks will face the Los Angeles Kings in the playoffs, this time with a berth in the league's final four at stake. While the Sharks dusted the Kings off in six games two springs ago, to say this is a different Los Angeles team would be a gross understatement. Anze Kopitar, injured for the entirety of that series, will be in the lineup this time around providing his brand of three-zone dominance. Jack Johnson, comically bad the last time these teams met in postseason action, was traded for Jeff Carter while former Shark Michal Handzus' 2nd line center spot is now occupied by Carter's drinking buddy and set-up man Mike Richards. I'm also informed the Kings did something of note in last year's playoffs when these teams didn't meet.
But the Sharks are a different team too. Coming off a roller coaster regular season, they dispatched the Vancouver Canucks with a four-game sweep in the first round on the back of Logan Couture's emergence as a two-way standout. San Jose will need him to help counter Kopitar while the remainder of the Sharks' forward depth, cobbled together over the course of the season to the extent that they now rival the 2011 team's stable of horses, outplays that of the Kings if they're to escape this round with their playoff lives. The following is our preview of the series, which opens tonight at 7PM in L.A.
Projected Game 1 Lineups
Patrick Marleau - Logan Couture - Raffi Torres
T.J. Galiardi - Joe Thornton - Brent Burns
Andrew Desjardins - Joe Pavelski - Tommy Wingels
James Sheppard - Scott Gomez - Bracken Kearns
Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Justin Braun
Matt Irwin - Dan Boyle
Scott Hannan - Brad Stuart
Dustin Brown - Anze Kopitar - Justin Williams
Dwight King - Mike Richards - Jeff Carter
Dustin Penner - Jarret Stoll - Trevor Lewis
Jordan Nolan - Colin Fraser - Tyler Toffoli
Robyn Regehr - Drew Doughty
Jake Muzzin - Slava Voynov
Alec Martinez - Rob Scuderi
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Matt: Going in to the first round of the playoffs, I would have definitely had pause picking the Sharks over the Kings in a series. The Kings just looked so damn good, and the Sharks had an up and down season to the extreme. I thought LA would be as tough of a match-up for San Jose as Chicago, and I was happy to see McLellan's boys drop to sixth in the west and avoid the Kings.
Now that the first round is over, though, my tune has changed. Seeing the Sharks easily dispatch the Canucks in four (despite the Canucks being a worse team than their record and roster suggested), gave me a renewed confidence in the team. That, when coupled with the fact that LA had to play a grueling and physical six-game series with St. Louis tips the scales in San Jose's favor.
Rest vs. rust is always worth considering, but I side with rest on this one. Players are banged up around this time (including Havlat, but he's banged up around all times in a perpetual state of bangedupedness), and days off should be counted on as a blessing. I think the Sharks older roster and a goaltender who is worked to the extreme reap the benefits of extra days off.
That being said, LA is an amazing team and one that I could see taking the Sharks out as well. I wouldn't be surprised to see this series go seven, but I'm optimistic it's six and ends with a Sharks win at HP. Just have a feeling. Sharks in 6.
Ann: This is an interesting matchup. And when I use the word interesting, I mean that the teams are so close in talent level that I honestly cannot tell which way it's going to go. Both teams have won four straight. Sharks have playoff history on their side (insert obligatory joke about that being a first here), while the Kings have that tall shiny thing with all their names on it. Something feels different about this Sharks team, but something also feels the same about this Kings team, which is not good for the Sharks. A wise man once said, "BEAT LA!" and I am inclined to agree with him. In a similar-to-the-prior round dose of wishful thinking, Sharks in 6.
Patrick: Sharks will win this series because they are a completely different team from years past and have finally found their grit. Well, except that their core team of Marleau, Thornton, Boyle, Vlasic, Couture, Pavelski... Ah wait...shit... This team hasn't reinvented itself. They are using the same formula that they were using that lead to a lot of success in the 2010-2011 season. Lots of forward depth through center, and putting pucks on net. Shocking.
In terms of forward talent, I'd say things are pretty even -- perhaps a slight edge to the Sharks if/when Martin Havlat's lower body decides to rejoin his upper body. The return of Jason Demers will help, though I'll give props to Scott Hannan for exceeding expectations in the Vancouver series. And I think Antii Niemi's growth this season is a true step forward, not just a statistical blip on his career.
So it's really a pick 'em, with bounces and injuries deciding the Plinko game that is this match-up. But fuck it, I went balls out before and I'll go balls out again. Sharks in 4.