The NHL announced the 2014 Stanley Cup playoff schedule after the last of the games Sunday, April 13. The San Jose Sharks will host the first game of their series against the Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Kings over a week after knowing that would be the way their postseasons would kick off.
NHL Network previewed the Eastern Conference Monday and tackles the Western Conference Tuesday. Examiner.com will be previewing this first-round series pitting two Stanley Cup contenders that are also bitter rivals against one another. (The Central Division's St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks are another great rivalry between contenders.)
The two have faced off twice in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The team finishing higher in the Pacific Division standings won both series (the Sharks in six back in 2011 and the Kings in seven in 2013), but neither had enough left for more than one win in the Western Conference finals.
Home-ice advantage was the difference in last year's series, with the home team winning all seven games. San Jose is the best home team in the NHL since Todd McLellan took over behind the bench and has finished tied for first or second in each of the last two seasons. Finishing behind their rivals in the Pacific Division means Los Angeles has this extra hill to climb.
There is a little extra on this series. The Sharks were not happy with the play or lack of empathy displayed by the Kings following captain Dustin Brown's knee-on-knee hit that robbed Calder Trophy candidate Tomas Hertl of 45 games (and a chance to help the Czech Republic in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics).
Both teams are both deep and have elite talent on both ends of the ice. Both have Stanley Cup-winning goalies and recent playoff success: San Jose has 10 straight playoff appearances with more series wins than losses but lacks even a Western Conference title while Los Angeles won all 16 games needed in 2012 but has just 13 other playoff wins in the last 10 seasons.
The Sharks were 11 points better in the 2013-14 NHL season, and have the edge in season-long statistics. However, those statistics lose credibility when both teams dealt with injuries and got reinforcements before the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Kings are ranked lower in all offensive categories: 2.92 to 2.42 goals on 34.8 to 31.6 shots per game, 17.2 to 15.1 percent power play and 34 more giveaways. They have little overall edge on defense: 2.30 to 2.05 goals on 27.8 to 26.2 shots allowed per game, with a penalty kill comparison of 84.9 to 85.2 percent.
In most of the "real-time" stats (the link is sorted by giveaways, where the teams are third and fourth to make for an easy comparison of all their stats) they actually finished worse throughout the 2013-14 NHL season. They had 977 more hits but that is a ridiculously unreliable stat. Meanwhile, they had 297 fewer takeaways and 359 fewer blocked shots while winning the slimmest percentage fewer faceoffs.
This is a different season, but the home-ice advantage should carry San Jose in seven games. The units were examined to determine this by what can be expected out of them in the Stanley Cup playoffs...
Even after the Los Angeles Kings added Marian Gaborik at the NHL trade deadline, they did not match elite talent or depth of the San Jose Sharks. This is not to say the edge is dominant, but it is undeniable.
San Jose's talent advantage is there straight down the line the way the forwards have played in the 2013-14 NHL season: Joe Thornton is better than Anze Kopitar, Logan Couture is better than Jeff Carter, Joe Pavelski is better than Justin Williams, Patrick Marleau is better than Gaborik...all the way down to the 20-goal scorer near the peak of his career (Tyler Kennedy or Martin Havlat) that is scratched being better than the last dressed Los Angeles forward.
That being said, the Kings are as strong defensively as the Sharks and have a fourth line centered by Mike Richards.
Look for pictured defensemen Dan Boyle and Justin Braun to have big series against the Los Angeles Kings. The aging veteran and blossoming defender could nullify any disadvantage on the blue line for the San Jose Sharks.
The best player on either team is on the Los Angeles blue line, but comparisons after comparing Drew Doughty to Marc-Edouard Vlasic things break down pretty evenly. Both teams will scratch a player half the NHL would love to have start every game.
Boyle is catching fire offensively and could ignite San Jose's power play. Braun's defensive prowess and ability to play heavy minutes will be key in limiting Los Angeles scores. If they play like that the blue line is not the slight disadvantage it looks like.
No one is going to argue that Antti Niemi is better than Jonathan Quick. Last year when that argument could have been made during the regular season, it could be dismissed after a save-fest series.
The Los Angeles Kings have the best goalie in the world. An opponent hopes his goalie can out-play him in three of the seven games and superior forwards can get one more win. Niemi can certainly do that, having won a Stanley Cup in 2010 and finishing third in the Vezina Trophy voting last season.
This season, Niemi's ability to do that could be questioned. Then again, Quick's impregnability could also be questioned. Both have young capable backups should they be pressed into service, but the edge at this position will always go to the Kings.
All year long, Examiner has touted the great coaches the San Jose Sharks have. However, the Los Angeles Kings could have them beat.
Darryl Sutter has been to two Stanley Cup finals and won once as head coach. The Kings are right there with the Sharks in producing goalies and play disciplined defense.
Todd McLellan probably still has a little more talent to call upon to assist him, but cannot be put on Sutter's level until he wins the Stanley Cup as head coach. Do not expect any team to be out-coached for the series, but the edge here is probably to Los Angeles.