The San Jose Sharks open their 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs with inhospitable intentions for their Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Kings Thursday, April 17. Examiner.com previewed the series Tuesday, but now looks at a few matchups that may swing the balance of victory.
When teams are this good and this familiar with each other, any edge can make the difference. There may not be two teams more familiar with one another than these two.
They have already played 32 times in the past four seasons, including twice in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Sharks have a one-game edge in both regular- and post-season wins.
It also goes deeper than that. Their former coach and general manager have also accomplished what they failed to in San Jose—win the Stanley Cup—for Los Angeles.
It is not only familiarity that breeds contempt. Dustin Brown's knee-on-knee hit of Tomas Hertl almost ended the rookie's 2013-14 NHL season, and the Sharks felt the Kings did not seem concerned enough.
Perhaps Los Angeles felt the same way about the Raffi Torres hit on Jarret Stoll in last year's Western Conference semifinals. (CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz reported Wednesday that the San Jose forward is expected to take the ice Thursday.) Of course, the satisfaction of a suspension coupled with less time lost might separate the two a bit.
Outside of such incidents, these contests are still nasty. San Jose set a franchise record for hits in the last contest, even though normally hitting is the Los Angeles game. It is just one example of how the teams can play the other's game and hurt a team in a number of ways.
Both teams have depth and star power. Both teams are tremendously committed in their own end, but the Kings have more of their star power on the back end and are thus the best defensive team in the NHL. The Sharks have more front-end talent and thus are significantly better offensively.
Obviously, the team that makes the other play its game has the edge. It is easier to do that at home, and that gives San Jose an advantage. Los Angeles has the advantage of winning a Stanley Cup, though that might only make the team a little less hungry for one.
Three things stand out as battles Examiner.com will be tracking in the series (look for live Twitter updates from the game)...
San Jose Sharks goalie vs. Los Angeles Kings shooters
The San Jose Sharks do not need Antti Niemi to be the best goalie on the ice. They just need him to be competitive.
In 25 of his last 57 and four of his last six starts, he has had a save percentage under .900. He has to be consistent, or the Sharks have to be willing to go to Alex Stalock and see if he can continue his regular season success when it matters most.
The Los Angeles Kings are among the most physical teams in the NHL. If they do not win the faceoff (third-best), they will pound teams into submission to get the puck back. Even though hits are a subjective statistic, their 60-percent margin over the San Jose Sharks is stark.
However, San Jose counters by being the third-best shot-blocking team in the NHL and fourth in takeaways. Los Angeles is near the bottom in both statistics.
The Sharks must have more takeaways and blocks than the Kings to overcome any deficit in hits. The team that has less of an edge in their preferred "real-time" stats will lose.
The San Jose Sharks must win the special teams battle to win in this series. They are almost as good at killing penalties and significantly better on the power play than the Los Angeles Kings.
More importantly, they will have the man-advantage more often. The Kings have been shorthanded more often than 27 other teams, while the Sharks are the least-often shorthanded NHL team. That should result in more than one extra goal over the course of the series.