Sharks and Kings rekindle rivalry with early season matchup



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Heading into this year many expected the Kings and Sharks to be front-runners for the Pacific Division title. Looking at their rosters it was easy to see why-- Los Angeles added needed scoring pop up front when they acquired two-way centerman Mike Richards from the Flyers and smooth-shooting Simon Gagne from free agency, while San Jose added a number two defenseman in Brent Burns and speedy winger Martin Havlat to go along with their depth acquisitions of Colin White, Jim Vandermeer, and former King Michal Handzus.

Twelve games into the season however, and both teams have already dealt with some minor bumps in the road.

San Jose got off to a rocky start, dropping three out of their first four games before embarking on a wildly successful six game road trip. By and large they've managed to right the ship, but needing a comeback win to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday and a blown third period lead against the Nashville Predators on Saturday have raised questions on whether or not the team is looking to sign a sponsorship deal with CBS' 60 Minutes.

The Kings on the other hand have followed a different approach-- a wildly successful start to the season, which included a three game shutout streak by goaltender Jonathan Quick, has since turned sour. Los Angeles is 1-3-2 in their last six games and has only scored more than two goals only once in that span. It's not exactly foreign territory for the Kings, who were 25th in the goals for category during 2010-2011, but for a team this deep it is something that has provided a bit of early season hand-wringing.

It all comes to a head tonight in their first meeting of the season, a rematch from last year's tightly contested six game playoff series that ended with a Joe Thornton overtime goal. With both teams looking to find a moment where everything comes together, tonight should give both the Sharks and the Kings an opportunity to make a statement in a big way.

For San Jose, getting better goaltending from Antti Niemi will be the key tonight. Although he has been a bit better than his .892 SV% would indicate, there is no doubt this is not what San Jose expected when they locked him up to a four-year deal last season. Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan is a firm believer in the idea that Niemi gets better the more games he plays, meaning that Thomas Greiss won't be given too many opportunities outside of back to back situations in the coming weeks despite turning in a .928 SV% on the year. Ipso facto, Niemi needs to be better lest the Sharks let points slip away. It's either that or transition into giving Greiss more starts, but that doesn't seem to be in the cards at this stage.

As for line combinations, David Pollak of Working The Corners is reporting that Couture-Thornton-Pavelski remained together while Martin Havlat got bumped up the second line to play alongside Clowe and Marleau during yesterday's practice-- Mitchell joined McGinn and Handzus on San Jose's third line. I would have liked to see more out of Havlat-McGinn-Handzus against Los Angeles, as it's a line that gives San Jose their most realistic shot at making the third line a legitimate scoring threat night in night out, but it's understandably tough to take away your second best playmaker (Havlat) out of your top-six.

Los Angeles has a lot of depth down the center with Kopitar, Richards, and Stoll all logging big minutes in every game situation. Coupled with their defensive depth, tonight should be one of the more exciting games of November-- these two teams match up extremely well at every single position on the ice.

Prediction: Sharks win 4-2. Goals by McGinn, Couture, Boyle, and Pavelski. Michal Handzus backchecks like a bat out of hell during his first shift before realizing he's leading the Kings rush towards Niemi. It's awkward.