Division rivals face off in California
With a 3-1 victory in their season finale, the San Jose Sharks secured the second overall seed in the Western Conference. And by virtue of a Chicago Blackhawks regulation loss on the last day of the NHL's regular season, the Sharks will now face off against their division rival Los Angeles Kings for the first time ever in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
San Jose, infamous for recent playoff failures, enters the postseason as a top-two seed for the fourth straight season. However unlike recent seasons, the Sharks have hardly been talked about in national media outlets as a team to look out for in the postseason.
"I think there is less talk and less hype around our team, which will help us" Sharks coach Todd McLellan said after Saturday's season finale. "We've experienced the Vancouver scenario. I have as a coach more than once and that's a tough one." he added. "We like where we're at."
Finishing second overall with 105 points, one might think the Sharks would be more involved in the conversation. Despite being as low as 12th in the conference in January, the Sharks at one point were 24-4-4 during their second half climb up the standings.
Now this season has seen a couple of San Jose's top guns in Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley fail to put up their usual 80-plus point totals, but this squad is much deeper than those over the last few years. With Joe Pavelski and his 66 points centering their third line, and well-established veteran grinders Ben Eager, Scott Nichol and Jamal Mayers forming the fourth line, the Sharks can roll all four lines in the postseason. Over the past couple of seasons, the Sharks didn't have that luxury.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, has clearly backed into the postseason, finishing as the seventh seed after sitting in the fourth spot for much of the second-half. While the up-and-coming Kings squad is looking to build on their playoff run from last year, one devastating injury has really set them back.
Leading scorer Anze Kopitar (73 points in 75 games) suffered a season-ending ankle injury against the Colorado Avalanche on March 26 and will miss the entire postseason. The Kings did make a splash at the trade deadline when they acquired power-forward Dustin Penner from the Edmonton Oilers, but with Kopitar out, the Kings will have their hands full trying to beat the high-powered Sharks.
With the next highest scorers on the roster in Dustin Brown and Justin Williams tied at just 57 points, and the fourth highest in Ryan Smyth coming in at 47 points, it is evident how much Kopitar means to the Kings. Losing Kopitar is as big of a blow to the Kings as losing both Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi would be for the Sharks.
While the regular-season series between the two was essentially a wash, with the Sharks owning a 3-1-2 mark and the Kings a 3-3, their most recent meeting in April might be a better indicator of how the series will shape up.
Back on Apr. 4, the Sharks beat the Kings 6-1 in San Jose. Of course the games in this series won't nearly be as lopsided, but the Sharks look poised to take this series rather easily.
They never have before, but look for the Sharks to sweep an opponent out of the playoffs for the first time in their history. They are simply deeper, tougher and more experienced than the Kings.