The San Jose Sharks have just dismissed the Los Angeles Kings, their arch-rivals, in a five game series. The Sharks did not dominate the Kings, but they were the better team.
Some will point to a Kings team that was already down a peg from their championship seasons. On top of that, they were down key players including defenseman Alec Martinez. The Sharks did not beat the same quality team which won Stanley Cups. Still, they beat a good team. Importantly, they beat a physically tough and a mentally strong team.
Variety Is Working
There is nothing about this Sharks team screaming ‘big improvement’ over prior Sharks playoff teams. This team does, however, have three major things going for it. First, this is a healthy team and that gives the Sharks an advantage over most teams in a tournament that prides itself as a battle of attrition. Second, while the playoff field is full of good and capable teams, there is no team that provides a true nightmare match-up. The Western match-ups will all be tough, but at this point, no team will be a prohibitive favorite or major underdog. Third, the Sharks can win on the road, having led the league in road wins. In the just completed series, they won all three games played in Los Angeles.
San Jose has the major elements needed for postseason success. They have a goalie they can trust and a back-up who might be as good as the starter. They have a strong defense with a variety of abilities. In his post series remarks, Kings head coach Darryl Sutter indicated the Sharks defense was as good as any in the league. Along the forward lines, they have a top line group that rolls with the best in hockey. It is a line which requires other teams to use their best resources to slow them down. Not everyone can slow them down. The Sharks have talent beyond the top line. The special teams are also a handful. The Sharks power play led the league in goals and made a major statement by putting up three goals against the Kings in the Sharks Game 4 victory. The penalty kill is perhaps exploitable. It is average (not bad, mind you, but average), an area the Sharks would be wise to improve upon.
It is likely the Sharks can match-up with whatever another team may bring. The corollary, they can beat you in a variety of ways. The series against the Kings provides evidence. The scoring in the opening victory (4-3) came from the Sharks top players. The second win (2-1) was the coupling of defensive effort and superb goaltending, holding the Kings scoreless for the game’s first 55 minutes. The third win (3-2) featured a Sharks power play de tour force while the fourth win (6-3) was all about secondary scoring, as five of six goals came from players who scored their first NHL playoff goal in the game.
A Long Shot?
The Sharks are not a Cup favorite for several reasons. The team’s regular season was modest. A 98-point season is not exactly burning things up, especially with nearly a quarter of the schedule comprised of games against Calgary, Edmonton, Arizona, and Vancouver. The finish was not particularly strong, with some head-scratching losses down the stretch against weaker teams. But as we’ve seen, what happens during the regular season is not a good indicator of how the postseason will go.
San Jose is a challenging match-up. If an opponent has a weakness, San Jose has the assets to expose it. No team is going to overwhelm a defense with Brent Burns playing responsible defense on one pairing and Marc-Edouard Vlasic on another. No team is going to physically intimidate the Sharks; if the Kings couldn’t do it, no one will. No team can count on home ice dominance against the league’s best road team. No team is going to have an easy time with a top line of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Tomas Hertl. No team will want to be overly aggressive against the team the led the league in power play goals.
In the salary cap era, parity now reigns. A team that can match-up against pretty much everything an opponent can throw at them will have a good shot. The Sharks are that team. The Sharks have beaten every team in this year’s playoffs except for the Islanders.
They took the opening series against a good team. Talent-wise, the Kings are comparable to almost any other team they might face. In terms of mental and physical toughness, they are as good as any team in the league. The Sharks took care of business in just five games. Now they’ll get some added rest. They’ll have some added confidence. They’ve shed some demons and they remain comparatively healthy.
In San Jose, the door for playoff success is now wide open.
There are plenty of former Sharks playing in the postseason, but the former Sharks player with perhaps the most impact is an unexpected one. It is goalie Thomas Greiss, who has helped the Islanders to a 3-2 series lead over Florida.
Not everyone was certain the Sharks-Kings series would last six or seven games. At least one person suggested it might be over more quickly than expected.