First-round breakdown: Sharks-Kings
As rivals in the most competitive division in the NHL, there's no love lost here. There are also no secrets.
"There's a little more to it when you're playing a division team opposed to a conference team," Kings head coach Terry Murray told ESPN.com on Sunday. "I think it's going to bring a little more intensity to it. The fact that it's two California teams will also play into it, and I think it's going to be fun."
The two Pacific Division clubs beat each other three times apiece in the season series, although the Sharks took home two extra bonus points from two shootout losses. They last met just a few days ago on April 4 when San Jose smoked Los Angeles 6-1.
1. Experience: Just how important was last year's Western Conference finals berth for the Sharks, who in previous years struggled come playoff time?
"Well, we just want to get back there," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said Sunday. "I think we realized we have a good team, and we realized just how much work it is to get to that point and still it's not the ultimate goal. We know how much you got to go through. We're that much more experienced, and I think we're even hungrier now."
A year ago, the Sharks looked just a little frazzled early on in the first round against Colorado. They were reminded of their upset loss to Anaheim the year before. But this time, the Sharks composed themselves and beat the Avs. They followed that with an impressive second-round win over powerhouse Detroit. Playoff demons exorcized?
"Our experience last year of finding a resiliency to get through that first round, we may need to rely on that at some point," Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said Sunday.
2. Losing Anze Kopitar: This is a team that ranks 25th in goals scored, so it could not afford to lose its best offensive player. Truth is, the Kings were already a team that prioritized a tight defensive scheme even before Kopitar was injured. Now, it's just more paramount that the Kings play a low-risk, patient game and wait for their chances.
"I think our defensive structure is really good," said Murray, whose team ranked sixth in the league in goals against. "Over the last three years we're bringing it together the right way. But you can't rely on defense only, you do have to score some goals. We're not going to change any part of it from a defensive standpoint, that's always key, but we know we have to find a way to score more goals. And that's going to come down to that playoff kind of goal mentality where you have to hang around the net more and do more around the blue paint. You have to be ready to compete in those hard areas."
3. More injuries: Aside from Kopitar, both clubs have key wingers banged up. First-line winger Justin Williams has been out since March 21 with a shoulder injury, but there's hope he may return soon.
"He saw our team doctor last night. His shoulder is in good shape," Murray said. "He's got the green light to get into the full practice with the team tomorrow."
Murray said he'll sit down with Williams in a few days and find out how he's feeling. So it's still unclear exactly when he'll be back, but clearly this is a positive step.
On the Sharks' side, Ryane Clowe has been out almost a week with a lower-body injury. He's a hugely important part of the Sharks' attack, finding terrific chemistry with Logan Couture this season. Clowe via text told ESPN.com on Saturday that he should be ready to go for the playoffs.
McLellan said much the same on Sunday: "We fully expect him to play in Game 1."
4. Sharks' blue-line depth: Scouts will point to the Sharks' blue line as a possible weakness. Jason Demers has improved this season, Marc-Edouard Vlasic has had a big second half defensively and Ian White was brought in before the trade deadline, but largely, scouts will tell you the Sharks still have to play Dan Boyle too much to make up for the lack of perceived depth. This is the area the Kings will try to explore by pounding the Sharks' defensive corps on the forecheck.
"That's going to be a part of the game we're going to talk about, to get pucks in behind them and make them go back," said Murray, who was complimentary of the Sharks' blue-line corps but acknowledge the plan will be to try to wear them down.
5. Center advantage: San Jose's depth at center is a major advantage in this season, especially with Kopitar injured. Joe Pavelski, a playoff monster last spring, has centered the third line late in the regular season. Talk about a luxury. The emergence of Calder Trophy candidate Logan Couture on the second line and, of course, Thornton leading the way on the top line gives the Sharks a one-two-three punch that is hard to match. This will be very difficult for the Kings to manage, especially when they don't have the last line change in San Jose.
• The Sharks' No. 2-rated power play versus the Kings' No. 4-rated penalty kill: This is the special-teams matchup that may decide the series.
"Absolutely. That might be the key to the whole thing," Murray said. "Their power play is outstanding. They have a lot of experience and composure and have big shooters. We're going to have to make sure we play the right way, play between whistles and keep the referees out of the series as much as possible. At the same time, that's going to be a real important part of this series. Whenever they get on the power play, we got to execute the proper way."
McLellan said that was the obvious matchup that jumps out when you look at this series.
"Their penalty kill has been exceptional all year," McLellan said of the Kings. "They've got some units that do a tremendous job and then their goaltender might be their best penalty killer. We do rely on our power play and we expected it to be sharp."
• San Jose: Patrick Marleau had eight goals in 14 playoff games last spring, and yet most people still view him as a playoff underachiever. Few players in the second half were hotter than Marleau this season.
• Los Angeles: L.A.'s big trade-deadline pickup, Dustin Penner, has gone 12 games with a single point. To be fair, the idea was that he'd ride shotgun with Kopitar. Still, no real excuse for that kind of production or lack thereof. Will he prove he was worth the hefty price the Kings paid for him with a big playoff performance?
• This smells like a short one for San Jose given the injury to Kopitar, but we think the Kings will provide some mettle. Still, Sharks in six.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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