Sharks/Kings Series Preview: You're All Wrong

The overwhelming consensus -- among pundits, reporters, bloggers, fans, commenters -- is that the Sharks will beat the Kings in four or five games, that the Kings simply don't have a prayer of stopping San Jose's offense, that the Kings can't score, that their best players are injured, that Dustin Penner is a bust, that Antti Niemi won the cup last year, that this is the best San Jose team ever, that "it's different this time." 

Pundits, I understand. They're not going to go out on a limb. The Sharks are playing great, the Kings are wounded. You put that into the Prediction Generator, and it comes out Sharks in five. Hey, that's a win-win for the pundit class. If the Sharks win, they were right. If the Kings win, they overcame adversity and it's a great story and anyway didn't they pick the Kings to be a force in the West before the Kopitar injury let them all off the hook? 

The fans, at least as represented by the comments on blogs, are split into two camps. The first camp, of which I am a member, says, anything can happen, I hope we win. I call them (us) the hopeful agnostics. The second camp says:

There is zero chance the Kings win this series. It will be a miracle. They'll be lucky to win a single game. 

And then they invariably add:

I'm just being realistic. 

It bothers me when sports fans say they are (just) being realistic. Why now all of the sudden? Every new season starts in every sport everywhere and one thing is virtually certain: your team is going to lose. They are not going to win the big game. They will not be crowned champions. Even the Yankees -- or the Canadiens in the 70s, the Lakers in whatever decade, or pick your dynasty -- have no better than a coin-flip's chance of winning it all in any given year. So why don't we all just concede right off the bat, in training camp: we have zero chance. I'm just being realistic. 

Allow me to counter with my own realism:

  • There is no series. There is only this one game. The whole season comes down to THIS GAME. What do you think the Kings' chances are of winning this game? Just this one tiny little game. Zero? 50:50? 
  • It's closer to 50:50. 
  • But surely favoring the Sharks, right? Right? They're the better team, in every way, except for -- well -- um, defensively and also on the PK, and maybe in goaltending. Well that's not a big deal, is it? Surely all that firepower will make the difference. We asked last year's Washington Capitals, and they said -- wait, what was the question again? 

An NHL defence never rests - The Globe and Mail
There is a montage that Hockey Night in Canada shows every year come playoff time that features a goal scored by Wayne Gretzky against the Calgary Flames’ Mike Vernon. You’ve probably seen it over and over. Gretzky skates down the wing, never challenged; brings his stick all the way up and then unleashes an overpowering slap shot that Vernon cannot handle. Here’s an exercise next time you see the replay: Start counting steamboats

I assume that's like counting one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi.

from the time Gretzky gets the puck until he actually shoots it. The time he has to get a shot off is astonishing – and if there is one thing missing from today’s NHL, and maybe explains why goal-scoring was down yet again in the 2010-11, it is illustrated by that frozen-in-time play.

Nowadays, there is no time to shoot, and little room to make plays in a league dominated by coaches once again.

There was a brief flurry of scoring post-lockout, largely because of the increase in the number of penalties, but officials eventually relaxed those standards, to permit the pendulum to come to rest in a reasonable middle ground.

Philosophically, the days of picking up your man in the zone are over. Defensive hockey is all about tracking the puck carrier. There is pressure on him from every direction – in front, from behind, at the side. And the net effect of that is that goal-scoring is down again, for the third consecutive year.

[...] Even those bastions of free-wheeling hockey, the Washington Capitals, who obliterated the NHL for 318 goals a year ago, saw the light this year; changed their style; and now waltz in the playoffs, having seen their scoring numbers drop by almost 100 goals (to 224) and yet believe they are far better positioned to actually challenge for the Stanley Cup. The Capitals single-handedly account for the year-over-year decline in scoring. They open against the Rangers Wednesday, a rematch of their series from two years ago, in which Washington squeaked out a seven-game victory, after being down 3-1 and frustrated constantly by Henrik Lundqvist’s goaltending. Everybody remembers last year’s debacle – Caps out in the first round, booted by another exceptional goaltending performance from Montreal’s Jaroslav Halak. In effect, the Capitals said: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

And so, for anyone imagining the Rangers-Caps series to be about offensive fireworks, think again. The Caps will start goaltender Michal Neuwirth and like everybody else in this day and age, will try to win a lot of 2-1 games. [...]

Edmonton Oilers’ assistant coach Steve Smith played alongside Gretzky in the highest scoring era in the NHL – the mid 1980s – and was on the team when he scored that highlight-reel goal against Vernon. The conundrum, according to Smith, is "this is as creative an NHL as there’s ever been. The talent level is higher now than it was during that era, [...but] the philosophy has become: ‘Don’t give up many chances, don’t make too many mistakes over the course of the night, and you’ll give yourself a chance to win."

It is a point reiterated by defenceman Cory Sarich, a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup winners, which won the last title before the lockout came along. "We had a pretty clutch-and-grab game and then we changed the rules and the first few years were spent in limbo, with teams trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t," Sarich said. "Now? I find a lot of nights, we go out and teams’ defensive systems are so similar and it has become so refined. Defensive systems, it doesn’t matter which team it is, if you play good defensive hockey, you have a chance to win in this league."

The Kings may well lose this series. Nobody knows. There is a high degree of randomness in hockey, more than most people want to admit. But if they're going to win, it's not going to be because they find their scoring touch, or somehow out-gun the Sharks, or because Brayden Schenn is called up and sets a playoff consecutive games hat-trick record. 

It's going to be because the Kings shut the door. Their defense is among the best in the league. It's a defensive system. It's the same system with or without Kopitar. You play within the system, with 100% unwavering focus, and literally stop worrying about scoring goals (instead: drive to the net, create traffic, score off rebounds, greasy goals, scrums, win board battles, blah blah blah), and you will have a chance to win every game. 

This is something the Kings actually do better than the Sharks. This is why the Kings can shut the Sharks down. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. But they can. And if they don't, it won't be because the almighty Sharks were simply too good. It will be because the Kings went off the map, deviated from the system and gave the Sharks an opportunity here, another one there, and that's all they will need. 

Stick to the system. Don't try to thread the needle or be fancy. Don't be afraid to let the puck hit the goalie. Every wide shot is a missed opportunity; every shot on goal is a potential rebound. AND NIEMI GIVES UP REBOUNDS. 

Do that tonight. 

The Sharks are 4-9 in series in which they lose the first game. 

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