Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Surging Sharks feasting on unsuspecting Kings

The Phanatic presents a perspective from the West Coast, for the surprising Western Conference Quarterfinal which pits the Sharks against the stunned Kings, who find themselves down 2-0 heading into tonight's Game 3 in Los Angeles. 

San Jose, CA -- If you predicted that the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings would play seven low-scoring games in their Western Conference Quarterfinal, many people would have agreed with you.

Of the eight first-round matchups in the 2014 playoffs, this one could have been voted most likely to be close. After all, last year's Western semifinal between the clubs featured only 24 red lights in a seven-game series.

Instead, it began with the Sharks veering wildly off course and defeating the Kings in two surprisingly lopsided home contests. Perhaps it is Los Angeles which went wildly off script, launching into a poorly-planned and even less well-executed improv performance. Either way, it has been a memorable start to the postseason for the South Bay predators.

After a 7-2 rout in Sunday night's Game 2, Sharks head coach Todd McLellan talked about his impressions of the opposition after taking a 2-0 series edge:
"After Game One, I talked about the fact that I don’t think we’ll be in this situation again and we ended up there. I don’t think that this series is going to play out in blowouts like this night after night. They’re a very good hockey club and they’re going to find their game."
In Thursday's opener, the Sharks jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first two periods. The Kings rallied in the third with three straight markers, but fell 6-3 after a late empty-net goal for the hosts. Three days later, the Kings worked their way to a 2-0 lead in the first despite being outshot 15-10 by the Sharks. The Sharks responded in the second and third periods with seven unanswered goals.

You have to go back to the 2011 playoffs to find more than one game in a series between these teams (playoff or regular season) that ended with a difference of more than two goals. That series included a wild comeback from 0-4 down which eventually ended up as a 6-5 OT win for the Sharks. Now, the teams head south to Los Angeles, where history tells us the Kings will bounce back. That is putting a lot of stock in the past.

Before the series began, neither team expected any surprises. LA ehad coach Darryl Sutter said before the first game:
"What happens in playoff time, a lot of time what separates winner or loser is not the team part of it, it’s the individual part of it. So there’s somebody that steps up and goes to another level or somebody that doesn’t, that’s usually at the end, what … when you call it a surprise or whatever that is, that’s usually what happens."
The first two games have certainly featured some individuals stepping up, and some failing to play their part. The Sharks' fourth line, for example, has been uncommonly productive. That isn’t entirely surprising. As the final pairing up front, they are somewhat overqualified.

That grouping includes Raffi Torres, Andrew Desjardins and Mike Brown. Torres started on the fourth line this season primarily to limit his minutes as he came back from knee surgery. Prior to that, the feisty veteran who is never far from crossing lines of conduct could usually be found among the top six. Desjardins has proven to be more skilled than most grinders -- and showed it on his second-period assists two days prior -- and he's perfectly capable of filling in on other lines in a pinch.

Of the line’s performance in the second game, Torres said:
"I thought Brownie had one of the best games I’ve seen him play, and Desi tonight was great with the puck, you know, getting his head up. I’ve told Desi a bunch of times that he’s got a lot of skill. It shows in practice, he’s been working on it. So it’s good to see those guys get rewarded."
For these unlikely suspects to score two goals in the space of five minutes -- pretty goals even -- looks like a surprise but it was far from improbable.

Sharks rookie Tomas Hertl, freshly back from injury, was supposed to ease his way into the playoffs in a third-line role. It took him four periods to be promoted back to the top line with Joe Thornton, after scoring his first playoff goal in his first playoff game. For him, it was not so much a matter of stepping up as picking up where he left off before being injured by Kings captain Dustin Brown last November.

A second rookie in the Sharks’ playoff lineup is Boston University product Matt Nieto, who stepped in when Hertl was injured and never gave the club a reason to send him back. His tenacious and speedy style earned him a steady spot in the top six. He represents a change in playing style that the Sharks have been working on for some time now. Todd McLellan talked about the team’s emphasis on speed:
"It’s been a focus of our organization over the last few years to up the speed element. The Matt Nietos and those type of players come in, we want to play a fast game. We feel that that’s what we need to do to have success."
While sitting playoff veterans Martin Havlat and Tyler Kennedy, McLellan has used these rookies in the roles those two would normally fill. That will not necessarily be the case throughout the playoffs, but for now the Sharks are in the enviable position of having too many capable players. They are not asking anyone to do more than they have done before, but everyone has shown up ready to play.

Only three Sharks skaters have no points so far: defensemen Jason Demers, Brad Stuart and Scott Hannan. Five skaters have accumulated three-or-more points. Joe Pavelski leads the team with four. The Sharks have allowed five goals in two games. In the first game, the goals against came in a span of less than 12 minutes. In the second game, the goals against came in less than ten minutes. The Sharks have played a tight defensive game, with a few hiccups, so far. 

For the Kings’ part, the individual difference has been worse than failing to go to another level. Too many of their regulars have underperformed badly. The Kings do not have a history of scoring a lot, but timely goals are stock-in-trade and they are supposed to have a formidable defensive game. In the 2013-14 regular season, the Kings averaged  2.05 goals against, the fewest in the league. In these two games that average ballooned to 6.5. 

Despite that, the Kings still have a reputation as a good defensive team. After the second game, Brown alluded to that, saying:
"We have to play solid defense and not let any goals in because we know that they’re capable of not letting that many goals in."
One has to wonder if the club which won the Cup two short years ago can recall all that. They have only played two games, a mathematically insignificant number, unless the goal is to win four.

Of the lopsided scores, McLellan said:
"The scores are irrelevant. They’re over, these could have been two triple overtime wins for us. That’s all you get is a win. You don’t get goals for or goals against that count for anything."
Nonetheless, those goal differentials do tell us something about who has and who has not performed up to par.

In previous meetings, Justin Williams was the Kings’ points leader against the Sharks. The Kings top five in points this season were Anze Kopitar (70), Jeff Carter (50), Justin Williams (43), Mike Richards (41) and Drew Doughty (37). In the first two games, Kopitar, Carter, Jake Muzzin and Trevor Lewis have two points each, Doughty has one, Williams and Richards have none. Just seven Kings have any points, only four have more than one.

Those numbers indicate that the Kings could very well turn this series around quickly. The Sharks expect as much in the next two games at Staples Center. Torres admitted the following:
"We’re kidding ourselves if we think that it’s going to be like this for seven games. We’ve been fortunate the first two games but then we’re really going to find out what kind of team they have going in to LA. It’s tough to win on the road, especially going in to LA."
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