It would be extremely hard to argue any other first-round series can top the one between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings. Two of the best possession teams in the league with a bevy of stars and two rosters as close to full strength as any in the postseason. There are so many things to look forward to in this one.
The Kings are coming off of back-to-back deep postseason runs, the first of which ended with the team hoisting the Stanley Cup. The core from that team essentially remains intact, but this is a team that could be even better top to bottom than either of the last two entries in the postseason with an extra boost in goal scoring in the latter part of the season.
San Jose, meanwhile, remains a team continually trying to get over the playoff hump. The Sharks have made it to the postseason in each of the last 10 seasons, but have yet to reach the Stanley Cup Final.
Just last year, it was these Los Angeles Kings that bounced the Sharks from the postseason in a thrilling seven-game series. Only two of those seven games were decided by more than one goal and home ice proved to be a factor. The home team never lost a game in that series.
With the way the Sharks were going early in the season and the level of play they were able to maintain throughout the year, the expectations are that much higher now. Unfortunately for them, they drew the toughest possible matchup in the first round.
The Kings were on top in the season series, winning three of the five meetings between the two clubs. All but one of those games ended via one-goal differences, including one overtime win for the Kings and one shootout win for the Sharks.
Getting back the the home ice thing, in this season's series, the home team only lost one of the five games as the Sharks did in January. In fact, over the last three seasons, including the postseason, the home team is 20-2 in this series. Think the Sharks are happy to be the higher seed for this one?
These teams are probably as even as it gets with a few minor advantages one way or another. No matter how you break it down, this is going to be an incredible series between two of the very best teams the league has to offer.
This is the series that will keep a lot of folks up past their bed time.
SJS Offense vs. LAK Defense
The Sharks are loaded offensively. This is beyond dispute. Joe Pavelski had his first 40-goal season, Joe Thornton was his normal assist-machine self, Patrick Marleau exceeded 30 goals for the seventh time in his career and Logan Couture made the most of an injury-shortened season by topping 50 points.
What they'll face however, is arguably the best defensive team in hockey. From top to bottom, the Kings make things difficult for their opponents and a lot of that has to do with how well they possess the puck. According to ExtraSkater.com, no team has a better Corsi for and Fenwick for percentage, the two most basic measures of puck possession at even strength with the score close. The Kings also have limited teams to 26.2 shots on goal per game, which is second in the league.
On top of having perennial Norris Trophy candidate Drew Doughty, the Kings also boast one of the game's best defensive forwards in Anze Kopitar. There's no real secret to the Kings' success aside from the fact that they play disciplined hockey, block shots and don't waste plays with the puck as often as other teams.
This is such a great matchup of two of the strongest teams at what they do. I don't think either team has a decided advantage over the other, which is part of what makes this series so incredibly intriguing.
LAK Offense vs. SJS Defense
The Kings went through stretches this year where they just couldn't seem to score. That has dragged their average goals per game to 2.42, which ranks 26th in the league. However, since adding Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline, things have picked up some. Since March 6, the Kings' goal scoring is up to 2.84 per game.
On top of that, Anze Kopitar is having a fantastic year with 70 points, Jeff Carter scored 27 goals this season and Justin Williams continues to be an advanced stats darling, and a productive one at that. He and Mike Richards each topped 40 points this year.
The Kings are not as scary as the Sharks can be offensively, that is for sure. But while the Sharks offense has gotten a lot of credit, their defense has played rather solidly as Antti Niemi went through some serious struggles this year between the pipes.
Similar to the Kings, the Sharks are a top-five team when it comes to puck possession stats in close-score situations, a good indication of their true talent. San Jose has allowed an average of 27.8 shots against per game overall while being anchored by Marc-Edouard Vlasic who has grown into one of the game's best defensive defensemen.
Though the Kings offensive numbers have improved lately, this seems like an area where the Sharks have a slight advantage. With how well their D has played this year overall, they've helped San Jose stay among the top tier in the league despite the fact it hasn't gotten top tier goaltending.
On one side, you have a Stanley Cup winning goalie and former Conn Smythe winner. On the other side you have a Stanley Cup winning goalie who has not yet been officially named his team's Game 1 starter yet.
Jonathan Quick overcame a slow start to the season to get his numbers back to about his career averages this year. Antti Niemi, meanwhile, has looked a bit shakier as this season has worn on and saw his numbers dip quite a bit from his Vezina finalist performance of last year.
Both Quick and Niemi were lights out in the playoffs last year, with Quick getting the better of Niemi in that seven-game series last postseason. Quick also has a save percentage of .940 over his last two playoff runs, which is pretty much bonkers.
With Niemi reeling and Quick starting to regain his form and heading into the time of year where he has truly shined, you have to think this is an area of strength for the Kings. Knowing what we've seen from Quick this year, the good and bad, I don't think you can definitively say he is a great deal better than Niemi, but he is better right now.
Despite the lineups each team has, both the Sharks and Kings were bottom-10 in power play percentage this year. The Sharks converted on 17.2 percent of their advantages, while the Kings only converted at a rate of 15.1 percent, which was 27th in the league.
On the PK, the Sharks were quite good, killing off nearly 85 percent of the opposing team's power plays, which ranked sixth in the NHL. The Kings weren't terribly far behind with 83. 1 percent of their disadvantages killed.
With the Sharks having more options off the bench for the power play, it would be fair to say they have better potential to get the power play clicking. Going strictly off the numbers here, the Sharks have the advantage, albeit a slight one.
|(2) San Jose Sharks vs.|
(3) Los Angeles Kings
|Thu Apr 17||10:30 ET||San Jose||NBCSN, CBC|
|Sun Apr 20||10 ET||San Jose||NBCSN, CBC|
|Tue Apr 22||10 ET||Los Angeles||NBCSN, CBC|
|Thu Apr 24||10:30 ET||Los Angeles||NBCSN, CBC|
|*Sat Apr 26||TBD||San Jose||NBCSN, CBC|
|*Mon Apr 28||TBD||Los Angeles||TBD, CBC|
|*Wed Apr 30||TBD||San Jose||TBD, CBC|
|* if necessary|