By Daniel Starkland
For the second time in the last three years, the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks are matched up in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
The last time these two teams faced off the Sharks jumped out to a commanding 3-0 series lead in 2014 and the Kings looked all but finished.
While Los Angeles was down, it was not out as the Kings rallied to win four straight, including Game 7 in San Jose, and carried that momentum throughout the rest of the playoffs and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Many key players from that series remain on both teams, but there also have been a few key changes.
The main key change for the Sharks since 2014 has been the addition of a former King, goaltender Martin Jones. The first-year starter started 65 games this season which ranks fifth in the NHL. Additionally, he ranked seventh in the league with an average of 2.27 goals allowed.
In the 2014 series between the two teams the Kings averaged 3.71 goals per game. In the four games that they won they averaged 4.50 goals, so the addition of Jones should help cut down on that. Despite the addition of Jones, the advantage at the goaltender position still has to go to the Kings, as Jonathan Quick has had a save percentage of .946, .934 and .911 in the last three postseasons. He is a big game goaltender in every sense of the phrase.
Both teams should be getting premier defenseman back in the series as well. Alec Martinez should be ready to go for the Kings despite missing the last four regular season games, and the Sharks should be bolstered by the return of Marc-Edouard Vlasic who hasn’t played since March 17.
While San Jose has more depth defensively with Vlasic, Brent Burns, Paul Martin and Justin Braun, the Kings have perhaps the best defenseman in the world in Norris Trophy candidate Drew Doughty. Doughty, Martinez and Jake Muzzin all have big game experience.
Up front the Kings are looking at two of the most physical front lines in the league. Both teams rely on forecheck and possessing the puck to score. The Kings, led by Anze Kopitar, Milan Lucic and Jeff Carter, at even strength are the best possession team in the league. The Sharks on the other hand, led by Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, are the third best power play team in the NHL.
Ultimately this series will come down to the ability of the Kings to limit their penalties, as they rank 15th in the league against the penalty. If the Kings can do that, with their forecheck and Quick between the pipes then they have a good chance at winning this series and moving past the Sharks once again.
The series starts tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Staples Center.