The idea of exercising demons is a narrative as traditionally ascribed to the playoffs as any. When you’re as successful as the Los Angeles Kings, though, you find you’re more often the demon than exorcist. The San Jose Sharks, a consistently dominant regular season club, have yet to take up that mantle.
It’s not all that difficult to envision a scenario where the roles are altogether switched. Just two short seasons ago the Sharks held a 3-0 series lead over the Kings in Conference Quarterfinals action. Jonathan Quick bounced back from a moribund three-game stumble and the rest, as they say, was history. San Jose lost that series, and for all intents and purposes, the window to contend too seemed lost. Los Angeles earned a shiny new trophy.
All this is to say that the margin between a Stanley Cup and infamy can be pin-hole small. One game, in fact. There’s four such occasions in this series already scheduled and likely another two or three on the horizon. Let’s break it down and see which club has the better of the other in this rematch from seasons past.
The Sharks and Kings have met five times this season, including opening night. San Jose has the advantage, holding a 3-1-1 record over the Kings in that span. The Kings have a small edge in Corsi For, holding a 52% to the Sharks 48%. As one might expect based on their records, the Sharks have a decided advantage in even-strength goal differential, with 11 such goals to the Kings seven.
In fairness to the Kings, though, they started their backup goaltender, Jhonas Enroth, in two of these games. Enroth is no slouch, but he’s not necessarily a starting goaltender either.
Playing into the Sharks favour is the number of games played before their deadline acquisitions of Roman Polak, Nick Spaling and James Reimer. One might quibble with the quality any combination of these three, but there’s no disputing that they represent depth added – a necessary trait when playing deep in April. The Kings, usually a more aggressive deadline player, added just Kris Versteeg to their lineup at the deadline.
xG Stats – Special Teams Matrix pic.twitter.com/XO3WSWsGV3
— DTM About Heart (@DTMAboutHeart) April 8, 2016
I’m of two minds when discussing the role special teams can play over the course of a playoff run, or series. On the one hand, referees are often wont to put their whistles away, allowing for a heavier percentage of play running at even-strength. On the other, the small sample of playoff hockey allows for that one power play goal, or shorthanded marker, to be the deciding factor in a game or series.
The Sharks, rich with playmakers at every level of their lineup, have proven to be one of the most consistently dominant franchises with the man advantage in the last decade of hockey. There’ve been multiple changes to personnel and even a few to their coaching staff, but they remain as tactile and precise as a power play unit can be.
It’s little surprise then that San Jose holds the slight advantage by this mark, third in the league by conversion rate (22.5%) to the Kings who are eighth (20%). The more predictive metric for power play success, shots per sixty minutes, indicates the Kings might have a slight, if understated advantage, as they are averaging 59.2 shots/60 to the Sharks 56.6. The Sharks are also more prone to the occasional gaffe, having surrendered six shorthanded goals on the season.
Neither of these clubs are exceptionally strong on the penalty kill. The Kings edge the Sharks, handily, with the 15th best penalty kill percentage (81.4%) to the Sharks (21st best, 80.5%). Los Angeles has been a strong defensive club under head coach Darryl Sutter, so these findings confound me on some levels. Especially with two of the best penalty killing forwards in the league, in Tyler Toffoli and Jeff Carter.
For as long as underlying metrics have figured into the dark corners of hockey analysis, the Kings have been a rapacious puck possession team. Their combination of pace and size make them a force to be reckoned with. There’s a near cadence to the way they approach the offensive zone, that lets them defy logic and conventional wisdom as a strong possession team, heavily reliant on uncontrolled zone entries. The same is true of this year’s Kings, as they tow a 56.8% Score-adjusted Corsi For.
The Sharks aren’t on the Kings level, but not many (read: any) teams are. They’re still rocking a respectable 52.1% Score-adjusted Corsi For themselves, good for eighth in the league. The addition of Peter DeBoer as the new head coach, following Todd MacLellan’s departure last off-season, is clearly paying dividends, as this is a near full-percentage uptick in the most predictive of puck possession metrics.
Intuitively, the obvious advantage is in the King’s court. Jonathan Quick, with his two Stanley Cup rings and all, is enjoying a strong season with a .929 even-strength Sv%. Not far behind is his former understudy, Martin Jones, rocking a cool 92.5 Sv% of his own.
At the team level, Los Angeles has enjoyed top-ten goaltending this season, with a .929 even-strength Sv% and 91.5 in all situations.
There’s no accounting for experience though and that’s where the Kings enter this series with a massive advantage. This will be Jones’ first series start as the bell cow, whereas Quick has been holding his own in the Kings crease for several years now.
|Thursday April 14th||Sharks @ Kings||10:30 PM EST|
|Saturday April 16th||Sharks @ Kings||10:30 PM EST|
|Monday April 18th||Kings @ Sharks||10:30 PM EST|
|Wednesday April 20th||Kings @ Sharks||10:30 PM EST|
|Friday April 21st||Sharks @ Kings||TBD|
|Sunday April 23rd||Kings @ Sharks||TBD|
|Tuesday April 25th||Sharks @ Kings||TBD|
My heart is telling me to take the San Jose Sharks, if for no other reason than I so desperately want to see Joe Thornton cement his legacy as an all-time great with a Stanley Cup. My brain is going with the Kings, who look as dominant as ever.
Were I pressed, though, as I am right now, I would side with the Sharks. They have the depth to keep up with the Kings, and a deeper, better farm system to draw from, should injuries play a role in this series. Besides, this is, what, the first time the Sharks have ever entered a playoff with relatively little pressure on their backs? They have to have it this time.