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May 14, 2013
NHL Playoffs, Second Round
Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks

by Jonathan Willis

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The only time these two teams met in the postseason, back in 2011, the Sharks were a dominant team and a Stanley Cup contender while the Kings were still pulling themselves out of a lengthy rebuild. San Jose won that series in six games, and would go on to the Conference Finals.

The story is different this time around. Los Angeles enters this series as defending Stanley Cup champions, while as recently as the trade deadline, San Jose was seen as a team in decline. The Kings certainly are consensus favorites, but San Jose's dominance against a very good Vancouver team in the first round signals that they cannot be taken lightly.

Even strength

Los Angeles Kings close-game Fenwick: 57.4% (Rank: 1st in the NHL)
San Jose Sharks close-game Fenwick: 52.4% (Rank: 9th in the NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, 5.0%

The Sharks are actually quite good at driving shots in 5-on-5 situations, but "quite good" doesn't put them in the same territory as Los Angeles. Despite a slow start, the Kings were the fourth-best team in the league in close-game Fenwick in 2011-12, and they have proven their quality this season by being the most dominant possession team in the game.

Advantage: Los Angeles Kings

Los Angeles offense vs. San Jose defense

Los Angeles Kings offense: 3.6 GVT (Rank: 10th in the NHL)
San Jose Sharks defense: 5.0 GVT (Rank: 11th in the NHL)
San Jose Sharks goaltending: 9.9 GVT (Rank: 8th in the NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, -11.3 GVT

The Kings have a capable offense, even if they couldn't get their scoring on track against the Blues in round one. During the regular season, L.A. scored 88 5-on-5 goals, the 14th-best figure in the league, but surprisingly enough, the third-best total among Western Conference playoff teams. With Anaheim out of the picture, of the surviving teams out West, only Chicago scored more.

A tough defensive effort by St. Louis kept Los Angeles from really getting on track in the first round; they will need to find more scoring punch against the Sharks. L.A. beat the Blues in six while averaging just two goals per game; Vancouver managed the same and bowed out in four straight.

San Jose had similar goals-against numbers to the Blues this year, but they got them in a different way. Where St. Louis got exceptional defensive performances from virtually every player in the lineup, San Jose wasn't nearly as good at limiting shots against. The difference was in net, where the Sharks got exceptional goaltending while the Blues' was inconsistent. However, given the performance Brian Elliott turned in during the first round, Los Angeles is likely to find scoring easier against the Sharks than the Blues—the San Jose defense just isn't quite as good and it's probably unreasonable to expect Antti Niemi to maintain his current .937 playoff save percentage.

Still: San Jose is strong both in net and on the blue line, and they aren't going to make things easy for Los Angeles. The Kings top line of Brown, Kopitar, and Williams is going to see a lot of Marc-Edouard Vlasic (one of the finest defensive defensemen in the game) while Dan Boyle and Matt Irwin aren't exactly a favorable matchup for the Carter/Richards/King line. The Sharks aren't as stingy as St. Louis, but there is no shame in that; Los Angeles is still going to have their hands full trying to generate offense.

Advantage: San Jose Sharks

San Jose offense vs. Los Angeles defense

San Jose Sharks offense: -11.4 GVT (Rank: 24th in the NHL)
Los Angeles Kings defense: 16.2 GVT (Rank: 4th in the NHL)
Los Angeles Kings goaltending: -4.2 GVT (Rank: 17th in the NHL)
Total: San Jose Sharks, -23.4 GVT

San Jose entered the postseason looking like a shell of their former selves offensively, but exploded against Vancouver, averaging just a hair under four goals per game as the highest-scoring team in the West through one round. Four forwards averaging more than 20 minutes per game—Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau—paced the Sharks, combining for 12 goals and 27 points through four games. Swingman Brent Burns also contributed significantly, picking up three points and playing more than 17 minutes per night.

At even strength, the shot totals weren't especially favorable for San Jose against Vancouver, but the scoring chances were tremendous—the Sharks dominated the series, with the Marleau, Couture, and Torres trio doing a little better than sawing off against the Sedins while the Sharks' depth lines—one centered by Thornton, one by Pavelski—crushed Vancouver's second and third lines.

The question is which Sharks team shows up—the regular season squad that finished 25th in the league in even strength goals, or the postseason squad that ripped through Vancouver's defense like it was tissue paper.

Los Angeles is a less favorable defensive matchup for San Jose than Vancouver was, but they come out of the first round with some significant concerns. Drew Doughty is one of the league's best defensemen, but he and regular partner Robyn Regehr struggled at times to contain the David Backes line (though they had success against everybody else). Their defense is weak enough that the Sharks' balanced attack could find some vulnerabilities, but the Kings also get strong defensive play from their very capable forward group, which reduces the amount of weight that the blue line needs to carry.

A lot will depend on the performance of starter Jonathan Quick; he had what can charitably be described as a "mediocre" regular season but was excellent in the first round. He can almost single-handedly steal a series.

Advantage: Los Angeles Kings

Los Angeles power play vs. San Jose penalty kill

Los Angeles Kings power play: 5.0 GVT (Rank: 7th in the NHL)
San Jose Sharks penalty kill: 4.9 GVT (Rank: 7th in the NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, 0.1 GVT

Los Angeles has a good power play; San Jose has a good penalty kill. Neither were as good in the first round as they were during the regular season—in particular, L.A. struggled on the man advantage against the Blues—but there is no reason to believe either side has a significant edge here.

Advantage: None

San Jose power play vs. Los Angeles penalty kill

San Jose Sharks power play: 2.5 GVT (Rank: 10th in the NHL)
Los Angeles Kings penalty kill: 1.2 GVT (Rank: 14th in the NHL)
Total: San Jose Sharks, 1.3 GVT

San Jose's power play was dominant against Vancouver, and very good all season long. Los Angeles' penalty kill wasn't quite as good in the regular season, but the addition of Regehr was a significant one (he was second on the team in total shorthanded time on ice in the first round), and they were great against St. Louis.

Advantage: San Jose Sharks, slightly

Season Series

Los Angeles and San Jose played four times in the regular season; the Kings had two regulation wins, one regulation loss, and one shootout loss. Los Angeles had the shot advantage in all four games, averaging 33 shots per game to the Sharks' 27.

Advantage: Los Angeles Kings

Faceoffs

Los Angeles Kings faceoff percentage: 52.0% (Rank: 4th in the NHL)
San Jose Sharks faceoff percentage: 53.4% (Rank: 2nd in the NHL)
Total: San Jose Sharks, 1.4%

A slight edge here for San Jose, a team that was dominant in the faceoff circle in the first round—Los Angeles wasn't all that good against St. Louis.

Advantage: San Jose Sharks

Injuries and Intangibles

Playoff experience is something both of these teams can lean on; Los Angeles of course won the championship in 2012, while over the last three seasons, San Jose has been to the Conference Finals twice.

In San Jose, the lengthy break between rounds one and two can only help them healthwise. Winger Martin Havlat left partway through the first period of Game 1 while defenseman Jason Demers didn't play at all. Both could return against Los Angeles, but the timeline for both is fuzzy. Tommy Wingels will be back for Game 1, while Adam Burish won't play at all with an "upper body injury."

The Kings have been tightlipped about their injured players. Defenseman Matt Greene did not play in round one and is day-to-day with a mystery injury, while Kyle Clifford also has an undisclosed injury and there hasn't been any clarification on his timeline.

Advantage: None

Prediction

Los Angeles Kings: 15.0 GVT (Rank: 8th in the NHL)
San Jose Sharks: 8.0 GVT (Rank: 13th in the NHL)
Total: Los Angeles Kings, 7.0 GVT

On paper, this is a series that should go the Kings' way. They were the better team when these two clubs met in the regular season, they were the better team against the rest of the Western Conference this year, and of course, they were the best team in the playoffs last season.

The hope for San Jose is that the shockingly dominant club that dispatched Vancouver with comparative ease in the first round is who they are now—a team that can dominate the scoring chances battle at even strength and win the game on special teams if given the opportunity.

Prediction: Los Angeles Kings in six games

Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Jonathan by clicking here or click here to see Jonathan's other articles.

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