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First Round Playoff Matchups: The Possibilities

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The Kings are first in the division, but their grasp is tenuous. First and second (or third) is the difference between a wild card and division rival matchup. Let's look at the possibilities.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Kings are in a great spot now. They have a one point division lead and a nice four game padding of regulation and overtime wins for position tiebreakers. Based on the standings now, it looks as if Colorado and Minnesota will battle for the last wild card spot. The Kings' point total could also end up tied with Chicago's when they draw even on games played, so it's not even sure which team in the West will get the first wild card team and which will get the second.

Of course, not all scenarios are equally likely. Wouldn't it be great if we had a probability for each matchup? Thanks to @IneffectiveMath, we do! Here are the current probabilities of first round matchups for LA based on the modeled strength of each team and their remaining schedule. As of March 11, the chart shows us that the most likely opponent is San Jose (38%). The next most likely opponents are Nashville (22%), Minnesota (15%) and Colorado (11%). Anaheim rounds out the top 5 at a 6% chance. From this, we can tell the model thinks we have about a 50/50 chance of finishing in second or third in the division, but if we do take the division title, we'll likely get the better record of the two wild cards for finishing first in the Pacific (so a worse record than the Central winner).

Other than home ice advantage, one of the biggest questions to consider for playoff contention is the return of Marian Gaborik. The 10-12 week timeline from the initial estimate would put him back at the second round of the playoffs. However, Sutter also recently expressed hope that he could return before the end of the playoffs. Regardless of who their first round matchup is, the second round matchup would likely be the Anaheim Ducks, whom the Kings would very much like to have Gaborik's scoring touch against.

Without further ado, let's look at the possibilities individually.

San Jose

Kings 2015-2016 record against: 2-2

A San Jose Sharks matchup would certainly be the most familiar for fans of both teams based on how many playoff games they've played against one another over the past several years. They've traditionally been a possession-heavy team like the Kings, but this year they are 13th at 51% under new head coach Pete DoBoer. Where they excel is their ability to generate scoring chances. According to war-on-ice.com, they are fifth in scoring chance for %, and first in high danger scoring chance %, with 56.4%. Fortunately, their deadline acquisitions didn't do much to strengthen their team. This would be a tough matchup, but definitely a winnable one.

Nashville

Kings 2015-2016 record against: 2-0

LA has won both of their matchups against the Predators, but both games required overtime to do so. (They are awful in 3-on-3.) Like the Kings, they are also a strong possession team that controls the run of play and scoring chances. They have a very deep defense even after the departure of Seth Jones, and they added serious offensive punch with Ryan Johansen in the trade. Fortunately for the Kings, their deployment of defensemen may not be optimal given their strengths, though the Kings are currently going through the same problem in the regular season. This would probably be just as difficult a series as one with San Jose.

Minnesota

Kings 2015-2016 record against: 1-1

Over the past several years, Minnesota has been a middling contender team that has struggled to put together a deep roster. They're not particularly impressive in any facet of the game, despite having some truly talented players. They are a team that loves to lock down others defensively when holding a lead, as we saw in their 3-0 shutout of the Kings. In that game, the Kings struggled to generate breakouts and scoring chances once the Wild got their lead. While the Wild are not a bad team, a series against them doesn't feel particularly threatening. Unfortunately for the Kings, they'll likely be the second wild card if they make the playoffs, and I'm assuming the Blackhawks are likely to end up with a better record than the Kings, even if they can take the Pacific.

Colorado

Kings 2015-2016 record against: 1-2

I'll get this out of the way: Colorado are dead last in Corsi For % and Scoring Chance % in the entire NHL. They are a team that rides the shooting talent of their skilled players to generate wins. Poor coaching seems partly to blame, and their quick and meager exits from the playoffs the past several years serve to underscore this. Despite the Kings' record against them this year, this is a series matchup that would be very fortunate for the Kings.

Anaheim

Kings 2015-2016 record against: 1-3

Oh boy, this is the big one. Through a plethora of personnel changes over the past several seasons, Anaheim has found ways to get better. They've brought in numerous free agents and found ways to ship out their older, declining players. This year they've also emerged as a strong possession team that controls play, despite their early record. Their center depth is very respectable given the emergence of Rickard Rakell. They may not have a Drew Doughty, but Hampus Lindholm has emerged as their Jake Muzzin, and the youth and skill of their defense is impressive. LA pushed play admirably in their latest loss to Anaheim, but there's no denying that LA is behind in scoring depth without Marian Gaborik. Fortunately, this is the least likely first round matchup, as it would require the Sharks to overtake both teams down the stretch. LA is almost certainly going to have to go through them at some point, though.

Wrap-Up

The Kings will make the playoffs this year, but their path to another Stanley Cup could very well be a repeat of two years prior. Two of those teams may be stronger than they were before. The Kings certainly have a hard road ahead in the West yet again.

So, who do you think the Kings will match up against? Who do you want the Kings to play in the first round? Let us know in the poll and in the comments.