In the Stanley Cup playoffs, the saying "your best players have to play their best" is frequently quoted. The difference between the top San Jose Sharks and those of the Los Angeles Kings was indeed the difference in the Pacific Division semifinals ending in the final hours of Wednesday, April 30.
The Kings had a 26-22 scoring edge for the series, with one more empty-net goal. Their top-four paid skaters get paid almost $2.5 million less than the top-four Sharks (less than Jonathan Quick's margin over Antti Niemi) and scored one more goal with seven more assists.
Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams, Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, Tyler Toffoli and Drew Doughty are competent to extraordinary defenders who were the top scorers for Pacific Division rival Los Angeles, combining for 17 goals and 22 assists. Patrick Marleau, James Sheppard, Joe Pavelski, Matt Nieto, Tomas Hertl and Dan Boyle led San Jose in scoring but combined for just 11 goals and 18 assists and are not as strong collectively in their own end.
Moreover, the Sharks got only three points each from Joe Thornton and Logan Couture. Their supporting cast out-scored the rest of Los Angeles but could not make up for the inferior play on both ends of the ice by the stars, including in net. Todd McLellan referenced the gap in core play twice in the exit interview after the team cleaned out its lockers Friday, May 2.
The problem is that San Jose is tied to this core for the long haul. Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Couture and Brent Burns will all make more than $5.75 million per year over at least three more seasons. The only two that do not have no-trade clauses are the only two that are almost irreplaceable.
Meanwhile, the three players that performed best for Los Angeles in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs are the highest-paid players at their positions, and the team has them locked up for at least two more seasons...
Anze Kopitar is the best two-way forward on the Los Angeles Kings. He controls the game in the circle and plays 20 minutes every night because he is on the power play and penalty kill. He scored four goals and six assists in the Pacific Division semifinals, winning 51.6 percent of the toughest faceoff and accruing six blocks, 17 hits and four takeaways.
Drew Doughty controlled the game from the blue line, with a goal and six assists while also logging the most minutes of any player in this 2014 Stanley Cup playoff-opening series. He had only seven hits but 13 blocks and three takeaways, and his 10 giveaways are more of an indication of how much he was relied on to move the puck than pointing to a problem.
Jonathan Quick had a tough first two games, but bounced back in a big way for the Los Angeles Kings. He earned a split of the third and fourth games while he played well enough to win and find his groove. Then he gave up just two goals in the last three games—one on a deflection and one he never saw—to carry his team to the Pacific Division finals.