The San Jose Sharks are having a strange season. They came out of the gate winning their first seven regular season games-- only to trip and fall flat on their face, losing the next seven. A few weeks later they suffered a four game losing streak and there began rampant speculation that the organization was on the brink of destruction. Then they put together another seven game win streak in late March and into April. This streak also coincided with the trade deadline, where they made a few shrewd transactions. They dumped role players Douglas Murray and Ryane Clowe, receiving a ton of equity in return. Then they turned around and replaced them with similar types of role players, Scott Hannan and Raffi Torres. Since then they have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL, most recently having barreled through the Vancouver Canucks in 4 straight in round one.
So now, the Sharks come to L.A. having turned their season around completely. The Kings on the other hand have lost a little luster of late. They began the season putting up gaudy possession numbers, but suffered from inconsistent goaltending. As the season came to a close, those gaudy possession numbers began coming back down to Earth, but luckily that coincided with Jonathan Quick turning his fortunes around. The Kings went into the first round, perhaps not on their A-game, and ground out a victory over 6 games against a championship caliber St. Louis Blues team.
Like that series against the Blues, this one will be another that could easily have been the Conference Final. Both are very strong, Cup contending teams. Yet, each are facing very different types of pressure. The Sharks are trying to finally breakthrough and win a championship after years of fielding an elite team but always having their season end in disappointment. The Kings on the other hand, after decades of mediocrity are coming off their first championship in franchise history and are attempting to be the first team to repeat since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings.
They are also evenly matched, having split the season series 2-2 with only a couple goals separating them. Let's leap in and see if we can spot where edges may be gained or lost between the two.
|Team||Attempt % (Close)||5v5 Goal +/-||5v5 Sh%||Usage Chart|
|Los Angeles||58% (1st)||+7 (7th)||7.6% (20th)||Link|
|San Jose||52.2% (11th)||+1 (16th)||6.7% (26th)||Link|
ForwardsTodd McLellan and Darryl Sutter have pretty similar approaches in how they match their top 6. They don't seem to pay too much attention to zone matching and generally deploy them in a power vs power strategy. Head-to-head, both teams' top 6 played pretty equal minutes against one another.
Looking at the results of the head-to-head possession numbers over the past two seasons, what really jumps out is how much more success Anze Kopitar has had as compared to Mike Richards. The Kings' 1st line, lead by Kopitar, has run roughshod over just about every key unit of the Sharks. While the Kings 2nd line, centered by Richards, has had a hard time turning the dial forward. They've especially struggled against Joe Thornton.
If the Sharks recognize this, it would make sense for them to try divert Thornton's minutes away from Kopitar and try to push the edge he's had over the Richards line. And on the other side of the coin, it looks like the Kings should try to get Kopitar out against Thornton whenever possible.
However, it should be noted that the Kings first line had an uncharacteristically mediocre showing against St. Louis amid speculation that Anze Kopitar is playing injured and is somewhat less then 100%. If the Kings first line is off their game, then they'll have a nightmare of a time against the Sharks. L.A.'s hopes are pinned to the 1st line continuing their dominance over San Jose.
The matchup of the third lines will be pivotal if each team's top 6 do in fact wash each other out. The Kings third line struggled against the Blues and the Sharks 3rd line, centered by Joe Pavelski, presents just as difficult of a challenge. Pavelski has had the edge over Stoll over the last two years, but it should also be a consideration that Pavelski has often been placed in the Sharks top 6. Currently, he is centering a line with Andrew Desjardins and Tommy Wingels, so the quality of his linemates is probably a little lower than what Stoll has seen when matched against him in the past.
We'll keep close tabs on how the 3rd lines are doing against one another as the series progresses. It could be what makes or breaks the series.
Each team uses their defensive corps in different ways. The Sharks have rolled their defense evenly across the Kings forward units and in general Marc-Edouard Vlasic (1st pair) and Brad Stuart (3rd pair) get the most defensive zone starts. The Kings, on the other hand, heavily shelter their 3rd pair and charge Doughty with keeping the Thornton line at bay.
Doughty has found a lot of success against Thornton, as evidenced by his +18 shot attempt differential against him over the past two seasons. If that is indeed the route Sutter takes, then it could leave the Kings' 2nd pair exposed against Logan Couture. Couture has had Slava Voynov's number over the past two seasons. If Voynov can find a way to close that gap in these possession numbers, that would go a long way in helping the Kings take the series.
Looking at the results of the Sharks defensemen versus the Kings forwards, one thing that jumps out is how much success Jarrett Stoll has found against both Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart. It is likely that Stoll will see a lot of Brad Stuart in this series and if his line can continue taking Stuart to task it would be a big boost for the Kings' chances.
The Sharks are a very dangerous team on the power play. They get more shots on goal than any other team in the NHL with the man advantage and scored the 8th most goals. They were dogged by poor shooting luck all season on the power play and it looks like that has turned around. In their series against the Canucks, they scored 7 power play goals and converted on the power play 29% of the time. It is going to be crucial for the Kings to stay out of the box.
L.A.'s power play hasn't really been anywhere near the Sharks level this season. They were 18th in the NHL in power play shot production. Their man advantage also really struggled in the 1st round. They only scored 2 goals and were 13%. The Sharks have a big edge in this aspect of the matchup.
Both teams are pretty even shorthanded. The Sharks are 6th in the league while the Kings are 10th in PK%. They both have allowed shots and goals at the same rate. No big advantage either way, but it looks like the Kings penalty kill will have the bigger challenge.
|Save %||EV SV%||Quality Start Rate|
Quality start percentage is a new goaltending stat developed by Hockey Prospectus. A quality start is defined by a goalie stopping at least 91.3% of pucks in any given game, or when he stops 88.5% of pucks and allows no more than two goals.
Goaltending is voodoo and thus it's impossible to predict what's going to happen. One thing is for sure, Antii Niemi had a much stronger season than Jonathan Quick. Yet, as we've seen in Niesy's latest post, Jonathan Quick has improved vastly toward the end of the season. His save percentage over the 6 game series against the Blues was .944 and he only allowed 10 goals. Also, all but one of his starts would count as a "quality start."
Niemi's post season numbers have been just as impressive. He only allowed 4 goals in 4 games to Vancouver and posted a .937 save percentage. Each of his starts qualified as a quality start.
So to review, there are a few key items to keep an eye on as the series progresses:
- Can the Kings first line regain its form and dominate the Sharks the way they have of late?
- Mike Richards and his linemates have had a rough time against Joe Thornton, can they stop the bleeding?
- If those first two matchups wash themselves out, a lot will hinge on how the Stoll line performs. Can they make headway against the Pavelski line and will they find continued success against the Sharks 3rd pair?
- Voynov has struggled against Couture. Can he and defensive partners Jake Muzzin and Rob Scuderi find a way to contain the Sharks top line?
- The Sharks have arguably the best power play in the league. The Kings will need to play a disciplined game and stay out of the box. They've struggled with that in the past. Will they be able to this time around?