Playoff preview: Kings vs. Sharks

San Jose Sharks  vs. Los Angeles Kings 

Records and head-to-head

Sharks: 51-22-9

Kings: 46-28-8

Head-to-head: The Kings won three of five match-ups by a total of just three goals. Three of the five games went to overtime or a shootout. This should come as no surprise as these two teams are in the Top 5 of Fenwick Close, both have depth at forward and defense and received average goaltending in the regular season.

Offensive GVT

Sharks: 19.9 (7th)

Kings: -21.1 (26th)

Few teams have the offensive repertoire of San Jose. Like Boston, the Sharks can attack their opponent on a precisely timed reset in the neutral zone and enter the offensive zone with speed. Or they can pin adversaries in their own zone and beat them with territorial advantage and sheer force of will. The Sharks’ speed is evident in their transition game, and how successfully they push the pace and tempo against Los Angeles will be a significant determinant in this series. Joe Pavelski is second in the NHL in GVT, and the Sharks boast three forwards in the top 16 in points (Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau).

In a vacuum, the San Jose Sharks may be the most appealing Western Conference contender because of the health of their core players. Every serious contender has a superstar player coming off an injury, or multiple key skaters who are banged up. But not San Jose. With Tomas Hertl’s long-awaited return, the Sharks’ top-nine forwards are as formidable as any in the league, and their blue line remains an underrated strength. The Sharks even clinched home-ice advantage for the first round.

Defensive GVT

Sharks: 20.4 (4th)

Kings: 30.6 (2nd)

Unfortunately, San Jose drew the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference quarterfinals – so they will have to deal with that puck-possession, heftily-built juggernaut. The Kings are led by Selke Trophy candidate Anze Kopitar and all-around wrecking ball Jeff Carter. The Kings also arguably have the best defenseman in the NHL in Drew Doughty, a hockey assassin. Few players impact the game in all three zones as much as Doughty.

The Kings are maestros of the neutral zone, and achieve success through their constant ability to achieve the zone entry and attain at least one shot while conversely suffocating enemy skaters who cross center ice.

Goaltending.

Sharks: 3.5 (14th)

Kings: 16.4 (3rd)

In the goaltending match-up, the Kings hold the advantage with Jonathan Quick, who is close to pristine in playoff settings. The Sharks have more uncertainty in goaltender Antti Niemi, but like the Kings, they are stingy on defense (6th in the NHL in shots against). Spearheading San Jose’s back end is the defensively dexterous Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who continues to improve offensively as well. From top to bottom, the Sharks have size, speed, and skill, [with their skaters,] and this series will be less about Niemi outplaying Quick as it will be about Niemi not losing it.

Key Match-Up: Sharks’ forwards vs. Los Angeles Kings’ defense

The Sharks are a very fast team, but the Kings’ back end is sturdy and has been improved by the maturation of Alec Martinez’s game. Dinged up late in the season, will Doughty be able to log Ryan Suter-like minutes? Jake Muzzin is a very good defender, but how will the not-so-fleet-footed Robyn Regehr and Willie Mitchell fare against a Sharks’ squad replete with quickness along the perimeter? How comfortable should Los Angeles feel with Slava Voynov playing such a large role when his puck possession numbers in close games are bad in spite of serviceable quality of competition and deployment? Turning the puck over against San Jose is a recipe for disaster, and if the Sharks’ forwards can use their explosive skating to win races to the puck, it could put the low-scoring Kings in an uncomfortable position: playing in their own end.

Key Stat: 8.0, 7.7, 7.0, 7.3

Those are the shooting percentages of Kings’ forwards Justin Williams, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, and Jarrett Stoll this season. When the Kings won the Cup in 2012, they ranked lower in goals per game than they did this campaign. But their 26th ranked goals per game denotes the lack of secondary scoring the Kings have had this season. Kopitar and Carter were the only players to reach 20-plus goals, and the Kings were 28th ranked in shooting percentage with five-on-five in close games. A market correction is expected, and the Kings’ scoring improved with the Marian Gaborik addition. But the Gaborik experiment is still a very small sample size, and against the explosive Sharks, the Kings cannot afford a downtick.

The Kings are the best in the NHL at funneling the puck toward the net, but sometimes they struggle mightily when searching for the shooting lanes. They are the prototype for the Darryl Sutter-enforced dictum of quality over quantity in shot selection. But a Kings’ victory is predicated on their top two scorers picking the corners consistently. A fruitless scoring effort from Kopitar and Carter for even two games would be a death knell for the Kings. The Sharks are less dependent on their two best scorers.

Prediction: Sharks in seven

Sam Hitchcock writes extensively about the NHL and is the founder and writer of intelligenthockey.com. You can follow him on Twitter @IntelligHockey.

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