Kings at Sharks Preview: Battle at the bottom

This rivalry has seen better days.

Tonight, the Los Angeles Kings (15-20-4, 8th in Pacific) and San Jose Sharks (16-20-2, 7th in Pacific) meet in a match-up between two of the National Hockey League’s worst teams. The Sharks, losers of eight of their last nine games, stumble into tonight’s contest following a four-day holiday break, hoping to get back on the right track and salvage their season.

While the postseason may seem like a pipe dream at this point, stranger things have happened (ask the reigning Stanley Cup Champions how their season was going this time last year), and Sharks fans can take solace knowing their favorite club will, at the very least, continue to ice their most competitive lineup as they attempt to turn things around. The front office’s commitment to a near-instant turnaround should surprise no one, given that San Jose has absolutely no incentive to play the long game this season, with their 2020 first-round selection in the hands of Ottawa (sent over as part of the Erik Karlsson deal), and several of their core players on the back nine of their careers. Considering the Sharks’ place in the standings (28th), and the fact that the pick isn’t lottery protected, ownership will be truly desperate to prevent it from turning into a top-five selection. Needless to say, the Sharks are as desperate for a win as any team in the league.

The Kings find themselves in a similar situation, sitting directly below the Sharks in the standings at 29th, albeit possessing their first round pick in the upcoming draft. Although they’ve lost three straight, they had won four of five prior to that. Anze Kopitar has been a bright spot in Los Angeles in the wake of a disappointing 2018-19 campaign, tallying 33 points in 39 games, including a gorgeous overtime game winner in Boston to give the Kings their last win, a little over a week ago.

This is the third meeting of the season between these two clubs. San Jose claimed victory in the prior two, a 4-3 win at Staples Center, and a 4-1 triumph at the SAP Center. After tonight’s game, they’ll meet a final time in Los Angeles during the final week of the season.

Not so special teams

The Kings are one of the league’s worst in terms of special teams, coming into tonight’s game with the 30th ranked power play and penalty kill. The Sharks, who have averaged a meager 2.61 goals per game this year, will need to take advantage, and convert on any opportunities they get against a Los Angeles team that has averaged only 3.15 goals against per game in spite of painfully mediocre goaltending. If San Jose ends up shorthanded, their advantage is only emphasized — their league-leading penalty kill should have no problem shutting down the Kings’ 30th ranked power play.

Any money left in Labanc?

Before the season began, Kevin Labanc inked an incredibly team friendly one-year deal, betting on his play this season to set him up for an even greater payday at the start of next year. Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson happily obliged, but was counting on him to help replace some of the scoring done by Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist (all of whom departed in free agency at the conclusion of last season).

While the forwards of the Sharks have struggled as a collective this season, Labanc has been decidedly cold recently, posting a single point in his last five games. If the Sharks are going to get back to their winning ways, they’ll need forwards other than Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl to have a big night every now and then. Tonight would be a great night for Labanc, a player we all know is capable of doing so, to start that trend.

Who’s in net?

While new coach Bob Boughner has started Aaron Dell in three of the last four games, tonight’s contest is the first night of a back-to-back for the Sharks, meaning it’s almost certain we see both goaltenders play. While Dell has shown decided improvement over some of his early season performances, it’ll be Martin Jones who serves as the x-factor for the Sharks. His play is so up and down, it’s nearly impossible for him not to play a major role in a San Jose win or loss. Thankfully, Jones has been ‘on’ for both his games against the Kings this season, and if he has another great outing up his sleeve, the Sharks will be in excellent position to earn a win.

Bold prediction: Behind a bounce back outing from Jones, the Sharks get another step closer to a season sweep of their Southern California rival, winning 3-2.