A Quick End to a Much-Hyped Series?

The Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks have tremendous playoff history from the past few seasons. Expectations were sky-high for a great 2016 series between the two teams. Game 1 did not disappoint. It was brilliant hockey, with the Sharks coming out victorious, 4-3.

Just before the Sharks-Kings Game 1, I tweeted that I thought pretty much anything was possible in the series. A sweep by either team all the way to a Game 7 decided in overtime.

The Sharks entered the series with some advantages. They are the healthier team, likely the more talented team and they had a better second half of the season. Los Angeles, however, is the poster child for executing in the playoffs, including a pair of Cup wins in the last four years.

In a series with so much intensity and talent, various things can tip the scales one way or the other. Kings forward Marian Gaborik, out for the last two months, missed Game 1. His status is unclear for future games. Two key defensemen entered Game 1 with health questions, the Kings Alec Martinez and the Sharks Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Both had missed multiple games immediately prior to the start of the playoffs. Both were there for the start of Game 1.

Only Vlasic finished the game.

Exerting Leverage

Maple Leafs
Alec Martinez plays a critical defense role for the Kings (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

Vlasic is a far superior player to Martinez, but Martinez occupies a valuable role for a Kings team with limited depth in their defensive group. The losses to a once deep Kings defensive group have come in many ways. Willie Mitchell left as a free agent. Robin Regehr called it a career. Slava Voynov’s legal issues resulted in his return to Russia. Matt Greene has been hurt for almost the entire season. Christian Ehrhoff, brought in this year to take up some of the slack, didn’t work out.

Should Martinez miss time, that would be a big blow to the Kings. While Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin remain stalwarts on the Kings blue line, the rest of the group is more suspect. There is a big gap between what the Kings put out in their Cup winning years and the defensemen who might be on the ice for Game 2.

In a series, teams will look to exploit the weakest links. The Kings weakest link may be even weaker. Even more exploitable. The Kings have proven expert at exploiting weaknesses, the Sharks will need to become experts in a hurry. They have enough talent to do so.

Seize The Moment

It is in the Sharks best interest to take advantage of Martinez’s unfortunate injury to seize this series. The series first four games take place over just seven days, not much time for the Kings defenseman to heal up. Nor is it much time for Gaborik to shake off his accumulated rust, should he attempt a return. If either player is able to play, but is compromised by an incomplete recovery, this too is something the Sharks team can exploit.

There is a chance for the Sharks to make quick work of the Kings. No doubt, the next round will bring another major challenge. The Sharks, carrying five players age 35 or older, could use an extra day or three of rest heading into Rd. 2, especially given the ferocious hitting this series is already exhibiting.

A sweep remains a long shot. Still, Kings goalie Jonathan Quick is not yet in his postseason zone and the Sharks must take advantage of that as well. When Quick does get into a zone, he can be as tough to defeat as any goalie in hockey.

Just because the last three series have gone 20 games out of the maximum possible 21, no one should assume this particular series can’t end in a hurry. The timing for San Jose could not be better.

The Sharks need to play this series a game at a time. They need to excel before the vulnerable Kings can get their game up to their historic level. If they seize the opportunity, they can end this series much sooner than people expect.