Sharks - Kings Preview
Well, Sharks' Fans got their wish. Thank you Detroit. Now, the Sharks don't have to play the Blackhawks in the Second Round. That's the Good News.
The Bad News, is that they will have to play the Los Angeles Kings instead. Out of the frying pan, and into the proverbial fire as it were.
This is going to be a tough series for the Sharks. The Kings seem to have shaken off the late season doldrums, and have rolled their way into the Conference Finals. Four straight wins. Starting to look like last year's Cup Winners. Heavy-hitting, clutch-scoring, strong leaders. The Kings are once again a Cup Contender folks. Is this the year? Is this the year we finally have a repeat Stanley Cup winner??
Indeed, things look grim for the Sharks. After completely dismissing the "favourite" Vancouver Canucks in 4 of what seemed like the shortest games ever played - San Jose went from "cruise control" to "wall" in about three seconds. They really are going to need some kind of a miracle to win this series.
Let's look at the stats. Firstly, these teams are very similar. They finished 5th and 6th in the Conference respectively. 59 points for the Kings, 57 for the Sharks. Both teams are monsters at home. The Sharks have a home record of 17-2-5 - which is a very impressive record. It might even be a decisive advantage. Except that they are playing the Kings. And the Kings are 19-4-1 at home. And unfortunately for the Sharks; it's the Kings who have Home Ice Advantage. Bummer for the Sharks. You could say that kind of "bites".
Conversely, both teams can't seem to find that same "mojo" on the road. The Sharks are a pitiful 8-14-2 on the road. Not to be outdone, the Kings cobbled together a tattered royal tapestry ending up with a 8-12-4 record on the Road. So, while both teams seem to dominate at home; they both stink on the road. The Home Ice Advantage Factor falls squarely in Los Angeles' favour.
Looking at Special Teams, again, these teams are similar. The Sharks are 7th in the League on the Power Play (20.1%); but the Kings are 10th in the League (19.9%). Both dangerous Power Plays, and both teams will have to be careful not to take too many silly penalties. But, there isn't an advantage for either team. The Power Play is pretty much a wash. But then, ditto for the PK. The Sharks are a surprising 6th in the League on the PK - 85% while The Kings are 10th in the League on the PK - 83.2%. Again, it's a wash. It's a veritable "Shark wash".
One category where the Sharks might actually hold an edge, is in the goaltending. Niemi was a monster this season. Absolutely spectacular. 24-12 on the season, a .924 SV%, a 2.16 GAA. Not bad. Not bad? Those are great numbers! Give us that on the Habs any day. You could say that getting nominated for the Vezina was pretty much a slam dunk. You could also say that nominating Niemi for the Vezina was as easy as feeding bleeding cow carcasses to the Sharks - you just kind of throw it out there. No one will disagree with you. Especially not the Sharks.
Quick has been solid down the stretch - another alarming sign for the Sharks. At the beginning of the season, Quick looked out of sync, inconsistent, "not Vezina quality". But over the past 20 games, Quick has gotten it together. Quick looked great against the Blues, even posting a Shutout in Game 3. So, it may look like we are approaching equality as far as goaltending is concerned. But, if you are a Sharks' fan, you are holding an Ace. The one thing that you can look at positively where Quick is concerned, is that Quick isn't particularly "good" against the Sharks. A .903 sv % and a 2.74 GAA against the Sharks this season makes The Sharks the "3rd-worst" team for Quick to play against (next to Chicago and Dallas). In particular, Quick doesn't play well at the HP Pavillion (letting in 5 goals, 0 wins, a .893 sv% in two games played there this season).
Real Time Stats
The Kings like to hit more than the Sharks (Sharks prefer swimming and eating to hitting). The Kings were 2nd in the League with 1446 Hits on the season. That means they will hit you 30 times a game. 10 Hits a Period. When you play the Los Angeles Kings, you will get hit into the boards every 2 minutes. Pretty much every shift. That's no fun.
On the other hand, The Sharks block more shots than the Kings. In fact, The Sharks block the 2nd-most shots in the league - 800 on the season - about 16 shots every night don't even get to the net against the Sharks. Because they get blocked. This might help explain Niemi's incredible run for the Vezina.
Trivia Corner: If the Sharks rank 2nd in the League in blocked shots, which team ranks dead last? That's right. You guessed it. The Los Angeles Kings. Very surprising. The Kings "only" blocked 511 shots this season. The ever sought-after, much-coveted Blocked Shot category goes to the Sharks. By a wide margin. Definitely surprising.
Watch the "Blocked Shots" Count Meter during the Playoffs here. This may have an effect on Power Play Success in particular.
Raffi Torres. This grizzled veteran is no stranger to the Playoffs; and gives San Jose some desperately needed "bite". Expect Coach McClellan to rely heavily on Raffi Torres; especially while Havlat is still out nursing a "lower-body logic" injury. Torres will have to step up big time for the Sharks to even stand a chance.
Jeff Carter. I'm still not sold on this guy. He seems to come out and score big goals; then disappears for long stretches of time. I never see him in the defensive zone. In 4 games against San Jose this season, he had 0 points. On the other hand, his goal-scoring touch seems to be what put The Kings over the top last season. It's funny with Jeff Carter. He often seems like he isn't skating well or having a good game; then all of the sudden, he'll score a quick-stick tap-in to tie the game. The Sharks need to keep him to the outside, and hope that he stays cold.
At first glance, it would appear that the Kings should easily dispose of a "suddenly forgotten about" San Jose Shark Squad. But, at the end of the day; this is going to be a very close series. If the Sharks can win one of the first two games; they would very conceivably come out after Game 4 with a 3-1 series lead. On the other hand, if they lose both Games 1 and 2, they suddenly find themselves in a hole from which they may never recover.
One wild card for the Sharks: They've had a relaxing couple of days off; while the Kings have been getting hit against the boards repeatedly for the past 10 days. That may favour either team. I don't think we'll be able to say who it helps more until after the series is over.
The other X factor here for the Sharks, is that nobody is really giving them a chance. Including - I would imagine - the Kings. There was a lot of hype surrounding the Blues-Kings series; the "winner of this series will win the Cup" etc. etc. Well, all that emotion is now gone. Nobody is looking at the Sharks. But really, these teams are close. This is much closer than people think. Look at the Pens-Flyers last year. Everyone said that whoever made it out of that series would march to the Cup. And, we all know how that turned out.
Having said that, one still has to pick the Kings. The Playoff Experience. The Swagger. The Loosey-Goosey look on the eyes of the D and the Captain. A battle-hardened team that literally feasts off of fear. Timely scoring. The Kings are going to be tough to beat this season. And, they have to be considered "Cup Contenders".
The Sharks have had a great season; and they have reinvented themselves as a completely different, yet still effective team. And, I wouldn't be surprised to see them win this series. But, I have to go with the Kings. Home Ice (and reigning Stanley Cup Champion) Advantage.
Kings in 7.