Giants vs. Dodgers. Fog vs. Smog. Redwood vs. Hollywood.
Northern California and Southern California are no strangers to heated battles with each other, and the rivalry continues on Thursday night when the Los Angeles Kings visit the San Jose Sharks in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But before the puck drops in HP Pavilion, let’s take a look at the matchup between these two teams.
Say what you want about San Jose and their lack of tenacity or grit when it comes to playoff time, but you can’t deny that this team knows how to score. The Sharks had seven players with at least 20 goals this year, the only team in the NHL that can say that. They averaged 2.96 goals a game this season, they ranked second on the power play 23.5% efficiency, and they have an uncanny ability to get points from all four lines.
Los Angeles is without their top scorer, Anze Kopitar for the postseason, and questions have been swirling around the hockey world about whether the Kings will be able to make up that production elsewhere. Luckily for the Kings, it looks as though first-liner Justin Williams may potentially make his return to the lineup Thursday.
San Jose’s defense was the biggest question mark heading into this season, and they responded by bringing in Stanley Cup Champion Antti Niemi at goaltender and veteran Ian White from Carolina. Those two players combined with the consistent offensive prowess of Dan Boyle and the much-improved play of Douglas Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, make San Jose a bit tougher than most expect in the defensive zone.
Los Angeles has four stellar defensemen including Jack Johnson and Drew Doughty that look to keep the Sharks scoring machine cool throughout this series. Doughty has a way to pester San Jose forwards, and that isn’t going to stop in this series. To go along with their top blue liners, the Kings also have Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi (each stars in their own right) that add depth to an already solid defensive unit for L.A.
After being snubbed by the Chicago Blackhawks in the offseason, Antti Niemi responded by once again winning the starting role in net for a Stanley Cup contender. He then managed to go 35-18-6 in his 60 starts, bringing with him a .920 save percentage and 2.38 goals-against average. He may not stop everything he faces, but when the Sharks count on him to make a big save, he makes it. The man has been on a tear since mid-season, and oh yeah, he’s won a Stanley Cup.
Jonathan Quick had an up and down season for the Kings, going 35-22-3 in 61 games, but continued to win while maintaining a .918 save percentage and 2.24 goals-against average. The main turning point for Quick this season was mid-season when it looked as though he would lose his starting job to backup Jonathan Bernier. Since then, Quick has been consistent, and his quick lateral movement has given San Jose trouble all season.
San Jose ranked second on the power play this year, netting the puck 23.5% of the time during the man advantage. Their penalty kill didn’t do quite so well, going 79.6% and ranking 24th in the league.
Los Angeles has a success rate of 16.1% on the power play, which put them at 21st in the league. Their penalty kill, however, is ranked fourth, and the Kings have stopped their opponents 85.5% of the time during the man advantage.
The X-factor for San Jose is going to be the way they play on home ice. The crowd at HP Pavilion is always rowdy, so look for the Sharks to be pumped up from the start. San Jose needs to make sure they can play well at home to begin this series off the right way and to build confidence moving forward.
For Los Angeles, the big question is: Can the Kings be successful without Anze Kopitar in the lineup? L.A. forwards are young, yet talented, and this is the type of adversity that separates the top-tier clubs from the mid-range ones. Look for L.A. to respond with a lot of passion throughout this series.
Expect this series to be heated as these two teams do not get along, although they both might hate Anaheim more. And the funny thing is, that the winner of this series could face the Ducks next round.
Prediction: San Jose wins 4-2