Western Conference Quarter Finals (Best of Seven Series)
Pac 3. San Jose Sharks vs Pac 2. Los Angeles Kings
It took the full 82 games of the NHL Regular Season to decide the Pacific Division champion and seed pairing. The Anaheim Ducks defeated the Washington Capitals on Sunday night to take crown as Pacific Division champions, beating out the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks, who finished second and third in the Pacific respectively. The pairing sets up the San Jose Sharks to face off against the Los Angeles Kings for the fourth time in the last six postseasons.
They call it the Battle of California. Since the expansion of the San Jose Sharks in 1991, the San Jose – Los Angeles rivalry has been like none other in the west. And, it has been widely considered to be the best hockey rivalry west of the Mississippi River. But for some reason, the two teams never faced off in the Stanley Cup Playoffs until the 2011 Western Conference Quarterfinals. That year, San Jose won the series in six games.Los Angeles would go on to win the next two playoff series in 2013 and 2014, both in game seven. It’s been quite noted that when these two teams face-off in the postseason, everyone should be ready to step up the level of intensity, because those who don’t will find themselves packing their bags and going home.
The Case for the San Jose Sharks
The Sharks and their loyal fans have been waiting 714 long days for this moment to come again. They have a chance at revenge after having collapsed in a “reverse sweep” to the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It took almost the entirety of those two years to completely restructure their team in order to return to the playoffs and find themselves once again at the doorstep of their bitter arch-rivals.
Since their collapse, the San Jose Sharks have missed 2015 playoffs, parted ways with coach Todd McLellan, traded goaltender Antti Niemi to the Dallas Stars, acquired goaltender Martin Jones from the Boston Bruins, and signed Joel Ward and defenseman Paul Martin. Before the trade deadline was reached, San Jose made a few more adjustments in trading away Raffi Torres, Alex Stalock, and Ben Smith to the Toronto Maple Leafs, while acquiring Roman Pollak, Nick Spaling, and James Reimer.
Now, the Sharks are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2014 and are ready to begin their revenge quest on the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday, when they take the ice for game one at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. In the regular season, the Sharks and Kings split the games 3-2 in favor of San Jose.
In the net for the Sharks will be former Los Angeles King Martin Jones, who spent some time as a backup to Jonathan Quick. Jones watched Quick’s every move when he was in net, and he learned from that. Now, Jones received the starting position he’s waited for with San Jose. And, on paper, Jones numbers now nearly mirror that of Quick. But Jones and the San Jose Sharks will still need to grasp all they can muster against a Los Angeles team that has proven to destroy every team in their path when they make the playoffs.
Luckily, for Jones, he has quite a solid defensive corps that include Brent Burns, Paul Martin, Justin Braun, and Mac-Edouard Vlasic to protect and ease the pressure off the crease and give Jones some breathing room.
In addition, San Jose’s top line, led by veteran Joe Thornton, captain Joe Pavelski, and young prodigy Tomas Hertl, isn’t a line that should be under estimated. Those three players combine for 78 goals and 128 assists totaling 206 points. Add in first line defenseman Brent Burns’ numbers, and that number escalates to 281 points in the season. And, these numbers are part of the reason why Joe Thornton is in contention for the Hart Trophy and Brent Burns for the Norris.
But for San Jose, starting on the road is the best thing to happen to them. This season, they finished with a road record of 28-10-3 for the best in franchise history and the second best in NHL history. Such feat has awarded San Jose with the rare but much desired “road ice advantage”. Starting the series with a win, if not a couple wins, on the road for the Sharks could help them garner enough momentum when they head back home to the SAP Center to try to close out the series early.
The Case for the Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings too failed to clinch a playoff spot last season, so there is no doubt that they will be looking to redeem themselves and re-assure the NHL they are championship material. Los Angeles has two Stanley Cup titles in the last 5 years, having won it all in 2012 and 2014. Saying that they have more postseason success than the Sharks is definitely a given.
They biggest key for the Kings falls to their goaltender Jonathan Quick, who has been constantly touted as one of the best post season goaltenders in the National Hockey League. And rightfully so, too. In every postseason since his first postseason run in 2010, Quick has not had a save percentage lower than 0.884 and has a combined average save percentage of 0.923. Because of this, many NHL experts almost refuse to bet against Jonathan Quick unless theirs a tying reason why they should.
But Quick is not all Los Angeles has going for them. The Los Angeles first line both offensively and defensively is a force to be reckoned with. Led by center, Anže Kopitar at offense and Drew Doughty on defense, the Los Angeles Kings have constantly proven themselves to be one of the most powerful teams in the NHL. And, with that said, the Kings have established themselves as one of the deepest teams with several other players like Milan Lucic, Jake Muzzin, Rob Scuderi, and Dustin Brown, among others, proving their dominance in the league.
The Los Angeles Kings will also see the return of Marián Gáborík to the Los Angeles depth chart. Gáborík has been on Los Angeles’ injured reserve since February after sustaining a knee injury in a game against the New York Rangers. But in the last few weeks, Gáborík has been able to skate during the Kings practices, signaling a likely return on Thursday in game one against the Sharks.
Be prepared for the most heated and intense playoff series, both these two teams will bring everything they got to claim California’s reigns. Opening the first round, with The Battle of California will even spark a great audience from both American and Canadian fans towards this series. Experts this week have become torn with many of them moving along the spectrum between a San Jose or Los Angeles win ranging from game five to game seven. It is by far the toughest series to call of the first round. Which is why many of them have decided to “play it safe” and call the Kings to win in seven games, citing Jonathan Quick’s stellar playoff performances and San Jose’s lack of postseason success as reasons to believe so.
With that said, I believe Martin Jones and the San Jose Sharks have what it takes to defeat their rivals in this first round series. But, this by no means will be easy for San Jose. In fact, this will be arguably their toughest matchup of the playoffs. The Sharks will need out-play Anže Kopitar and company, find gaps in Drew Doughty’s defensive corps, and be quicker than Jonathan Quick to get the puck in the net.
It will no doubt require all 21 players on the Sharks roster, from the first to the fourth lines to compete and give it all they got. And, they will need most definitely starting goaltender Martin Jones to be on his “A-Game” and for the number “one-b” goaltender James Reimer to be ready to take over at any given moment.
But overall, while the odds may be against the San Jose Sharks, the Stanley Cup Playoffs is a place where upsets happen, and odds are constantly defied. With enough passion, energy, and toughness, the San Jose Sharks will be able to compete against the Los Angeles Kings and win this series in six games.
Game 1 (4/14): San Jose at Los Angeles – Staples Center, Los Angeles, Calif. – 7:30 PT
Game 2 (4/16): San Jose at Los Angeles– Staples Center, Los Angeles, Calif. – 7:30 PT
Game 3 (4/18): Los Angeles at San Jose – SAP Center, San Jose, Calif. – 7:30PT
Game 4 (4/20): Los Angeles at San Jose – SAP Center, San Jose, Calif. – 7:30PT
Game 5** (4/22): San Jose at Los Angeles – Staples Center, Los Angeles, Calif. – TBD
Game 6** (4/24): Los Angeles at San Jose – SAP Center, San Jose, Calif. – TBD
Game 7** (4/26): San Jose at Los Angeles – Staples Center, Los Angeles, Calif. – TBD
**Denotes If Necessary**
Stats Courtesy of: nhl.com