Tonight, the San Jose Sharks (12-11-1, 5th Pacific) and Los Angeles Kings (9-13-1, 8th Pacific) will look to renew a rivalry that’s remained dormant the last few years. After a five or so year period of intense, visceral meetings, often exacerbated in the postseason, the animus between the two clubs has faded — a natural process hastened by the Kings’ fall from relevance and the recent emergence of the Vegas Golden Knights.
Last season, the division rivals split their four-game season series, despite being separated by 40 points in the standings, a result indicative of the heightened intensity and unpredictability present in matchups between the two. Tonight is the first meeting in this season’s four-game series, as both teams look to set the tone for their slate of matches.
The Sharks are coming off of a stretch of red-hot play, winning eight of their last nine games, including impressive victories at home against the 16-3-2 New York Islanders, and in Vegas against the Golden Knights, a road opponent who has consistently had the Sharks’ number. Despite the Kings being a lower-tier opponent, the importance of tonight’s matchup can’t be overstated. In fact, it’s actually magnified by their impotence, as the Sharks, who got off to an abysmal start to the season and now sit only a point behind the Golden Knights in the Pacific Division, can’t afford to leave points on the table if they hope to secure a playoff berth, particularly against teams they should beat.
The Kings come in fresh off of a hot streak of their own, losing to the Arizona Coyotes 3-2 on Saturday. Prior to that, however, they had won four of their last five on the back of their top center, Anze Kopitar, who has started the season strong, putting up 24 points in the 23 games he’s played this year.
Like the Sharks, the Kings have struggled with mediocre goaltending this season, with Jonathan Quick posting a .884 save percentage with a goals-against-average of 3.44. Backup Jack Campbell, who has already played seven games this season, hasn’t been much better, posting a save percentage of .886, with a goals against average of 3.09. The Sharks will have to hope they see Campbell in net — though he’s massively regressed since the peak of his career, Quick has an innate tendency to elevate his game against the Sharks, evidenced by the 2-0-1 record and .921 save percentage he posted against San Jose last year.
It’s a Trap!
In every sense of the phrase, this is a trap game for the Sharks, and they’ll need to proceed with caution. Even without the services of Czech dynamo Tomas Hertl, them dropping a very winnable game to a weak divisional foe, currently sitting in eighth place in the division and coming off of a last place finish in the Western Conference last year would be hard to excuse from a team looking to establish themselves as a legitimate contender, particularly since a win would vault them over the Golden Knights in the divisional standings.
To end the night with two points, the Sharks will have to be certain they don’t underestimate the Kings, and bring their A-game to the rink; despite their place in the standings, the Kings have been sneakily good as of late, and have gamebreaking talent in key places, with Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty remaining excellent at their respective positions.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt Los Angeles’ chances that with new Head Coach Todd McLellan at the helm, the Kings have someone behind the bench who knows the members of the Sharks’ old guard better than any opposing coach in the league.
Goaltending: Strength, or Weakness?
The recent struggles of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have been a critical weakness of the Sharks all year. That is, until their last two respective outings, when both netminders absolutely went off, turning in dominant individual performances. Dell had a fantastic outing in Vegas, stopping 37 of 38 shots against the Golden Knights en route to a 2-1 San Jose victory, while Jones, not to be outdone, stopped 27 of 28 shots and led the Sharks past a phenomenal Islanders team only two days later. Of course, we’ve seen this change at the drop of a hat, particularly with Martin Jones, the NHL’s cardinal feast-or-famine goalie. If the Sharks get the level of goaltending they’ve gotten the last few games, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which they lose. If not, predicting tonight’s outcome becomes much more difficult.
Bold Prediction: Not bold per se, but I think the Sharks come away with a win tonight. While we’ve seen them come out flat and get caught snoozing against an inferior opponent in the past, they’ve played with a necessary urgency recently, digging themselves out of the hole they started the season in. Look for that trend to continue, as they increase their hot stretch to nine wins in their last ten contests.