The Los Angeles Kings host their Pacific Division rival San Jose Sharks in an elimination game Thursday, April 24. Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News is not alone in bemusing Wednesday how this Stanley Cup playoff series is proving him wrong since almost no one would have expected it could end in a sweep.
Fans tend to think of anything less than optimism as pessimism, but journalists are paid for their analysis of a team's faults as well as its strengths. Still, it helps to get forgiveness when a person can turn eating crow into entertainment.
In reality, coaches must have the same eye. Complacency is a bad thing, and it stems from overconfidence. Had the Sharks thought two dominant wins meant they could not lose this series, they might not have pulled out the rare road win over the Kings. Even now, coach Todd McLellan weighed in on this to Purdy:
Don't give us a passing grade yet—we're still taking the test.
If San Jose lets Los Angeles up off the ice because of overconfidence and Jonathan Quick steals the next game, the pressure and momentum switch places. Not only does that mean a long series and longer Stanley Cup run, it could open the door for being knocked out now—especially considering potential variables like injuries.
On paper, these two teams were closely matched in the 2013-14 NHL season. The Kings were 3-1-1 head-to-head, added Marian Gaborik to bolster their lack of scoring and were once again the best defensive team in the league. So far in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, things have been very different.
The Sharks are looking to end this now. This is partly for the chance at rest, partly because they know what the 2012 Stanley Cup champions are capable of and partly the need to take a lead in the playoff history between the Pacific Division rivals. Other than showing up with that level of urgency, there are three keys to accomplishing their goal Thursday...
Possession is 9/10 of the law
Both these Pacific Division powers are puck possession teams. The Los Angeles Kings finished less than one-tenth of one percent lower in the faceoff circle but have had a slight edge in all three games so far. Both teams commit giveaways that can be exploited but the San Jose Sharks have had the advantage in all three games in turnover ratio.
If San Jose can win over half the faceoffs or win the timely ones (special teams, offensive/defensive zone more so than even-strength blue or red line draws), Los Angeles will have fewer scoring opportunities. The team that wins the turnover battle will get the better scoring opportunities.
Obviously, being the better team in both areas almost guarantees a win. However, the more important statistical battle to win is the giveaway-takeaway differential. Each possession gained there is worth almost two faceoffs.
The San Jose Sharks can be aggressive and also defensively responsible. It is all about priorities.
The most important thing when taking possession of the puck in the defensive zone is getting it past the blue line. Choosing the best play to counterattack is not the priority. When goals are at a premium as they should eventually be for two of the best defensive teams in the NHL, giving up prime chances is deadly.
Coach Todd McLellan frequently talks about making the simple play. The Sharks have to be patient for scoring chances.
The right choice in any situation in San Jose's zone is to get the puck into the neutral zone. From there, look to attack the offensive zone. Just as teams take Stanley Cup playoff series one game at a time, they need to take advancing the puck one zone at a time to be consistently successful.
Jump out to early lead
Everyone knows that the team that scores first has a big advantage. However, the Los Angeles Kings had an early 2-0 lead in the second game and still lost.
Facing elimination, an early lead could be deflating. The San Jose Sharks have a 17-8 edge on the scoreboard so far in the first-round Stanley Cup playoff series. They dominated the two home games and still managed to win on the road.
If the Kings fall behind by two goals in any period, they could crack under the pressure of their pending doom and make the game easier for the Sharks.