While we wait patiently for the Kings-Ducks playoff series that will torch the (818) to the (714), we find ourselves with an obstacle best served illegally and liquidated. We are told to “Fear The Fin” and fear it we should, for the fin is scarce and the fin needs protecting.
Parallels drawn between the ferocious oceanic beasts and the team that hails from San Jose invoking their namesake are not made simply in jest or tortured attempts at humor through hyperbolic facsimile. No, the commonalities between the Sharks in San Jose and the Sharks in the ocean are quite appropriate for the Los Angeles Kings upcoming playoff series against the former.
Let us delineate.
Sharks are vicious creatures. Powerful, swift and able to eviscerate an unsuspecting opponent. A war of pound strength waged in their territory is a fool’s errand. They will stalk. They will hunt. They will bite and if they like the taste, they will kill.
The San Jose Sharks have these traits. Their team identity is built on overwhelming strength. The strength to pass, skate and score. They are the masters of their territory, sporting a home ice advantage enjoyed by few other NHL teams. Play the game they want to play, swift and offensive and you will lose. Smelling the blood weakness on the ice only emboldens their attack.
Frightening stuff. Sharks are makers of nightmares.
Ah, nightmares. That which can temper our resolve, but exists more in the mind than in the space particles occupy.
Movies and stories, this is why we fear the shark. They are opportunistic, but their abilities are far from ubiquitous. Within their own realm, they become susceptible when encountered by smarter foes, even those with smaller teeth. It is, after all, far more common for a man to chew on a shark than is for the fish’s sharp teeth to tear through a man. Shark-related fatalities are terrifying and make for engaging news stories, but are, in reality, statistically irrelevant.
Regular seasons are to those in San Jose as movies and stories are to those in the sea. Tall tales spun based upon encounters where the stakes are no higher than a dream. Put to task of intelligence, deft goaltending and studious defense, the San Jose Sharks find their sides full with welts of frustration akin to the many holes harpoons poke through those in the ocean. Just as big, scary sharks kill few humans, the Sharks dispatch of few playoff opponents.
San Jose has a single weapon with many teeth and a brain as small as their capacity for leadership and resolve.
We know exactly what to expect out of this series. Very little has changed in the core dynamics or personnel of these two teams since their seven game series last season. The Kings have added Gaborik, Pearson and Mitchell to the lineup and lost Penner, Fraser and Ellerby. Those are, in all three cases, upgrades. Anze Kopitar is on fire and Jake Muzzin is a year the wiser. Regehr is fully integrated into and comfortable with the system. On the downside Brown isn’t playing very well and is taking stupid penalties. Richards hasn’t been scoring and Doughty is likely to be playing more hurt than is normal for the playoffs.
The Sharks have lost Gomez and Galliardi and added Tomas Hertl, Matt Neito, Mike Brown and regained Havlat and Burish, who were injured during the series last year. Again, improvements, mostly concerning Hertl and Havlat. Shark fans see Hertl as a fulcrum player and they should. He’s got all the talent we love to see in Toffoli (and probably more) with none of the defensive responsibilities demanded of him by his coach. Joe Pavelski is a goal scoring machine, Thornton is a known commodity and along with Marleau, Couture, Havlat and Burns, provide elite top-end firepower. Their defense is unchanged. They have not been playing their best hockey lately, having bombed against the Ducks in a game that could have helped propel them to first in the division. Furthermore, Antii Niemi is not having a stellar year.
There is no question that the Sharks have the Kings outclassed, man-to-man, in the scoring department. Todd McLellan engages in a high powered game that uses speed and stretch passes to create chances off the rush. That is not the Kings’ game and if they get caught trying to play it, they will likely lose, save for an effort from Jonathan Quick like we saw when he snuffed out of the St. Louis Blues last season.
We know the Kings have a better defense as theirs is factually tops in the NHL. Jon Rosen points out that the Kings and Sharks are very close in those fussy Corsi metrics. The conclusion? Goaltending will determine this series. We have seen, throughout the years, in both the regular season and playoffs, that the Sharks offense and Kings defense are neutralizing factors. Both coaches have their players buying into their system 100% and neither team relies upon players that lack motivation.
Niemi vs. Quick is the matchup I care about. However, it is not enough for Quick to outplay Niemi. Quick has to be a bigger factor for the Kings than Niemi is for the Sharks. That is a subtle but important difference. Simply being better than Niemi should not be a problem for Quick, however the Kings rely on Quick to be a clear difference maker and one of their best players, which is not true of the Sharks and their goalie.
We have two last things to consider. Animosity and culture.
Let’s begin with culture. Dean Lombardi, for all his faults and verbosity, has established exactly what he set out to instill here in Los Angeles; a winning identity. The Kings expect to win games and know the full measure of what that accomplishment entails. Those seeds, planted by young players like Kopitar and Doughty, watered by veteran additions of Mitchell, Richards and formerly Scuderi, tended and matured by coach Sutter, were harvested in 2012.
Last year we saw that identity propel the Kings past the Blues after dropping the first two games. We saw it defeat the Sharks in seven games and we saw it force an exciting overtime on the brink of defeat against a Chicago team that was, quite bluntly, just overwhelming for the Kings.
The Sharks are not that overwhelming. A good team, but not an overwhelming one. They are also not a team with a winning culture. I’m not going to go into the old “choking” adages. They are simply not a team full of winners. They are a team sprinkled with winners. Dan Boyle, he’s a winner, despite having a face made for pulping. Joe Pavelski, there’s a winner. Niemi, winner lite. Meanwhile, Raffi Torres is the kind of guy who wins things only when the hockey gods are sleeping on the job. The Kings’ confidence is brooding and tempered and can handle the adversity a grueling playoff series brings. The Sharks’ confidence is tumultuous and combustible.
And so we come to combustion, the precarious end result of an animosity that is exponentially increasing between these two teams. Three playoff series in four years provides us one of the things we love most about sports – the rivalry. The venom flowing between Northern and Southern California has extended beyond the playoffs and has already been felt in previous games this season. In the two teams’ last meeting on April 3, a narrow Sharks victory in San Jose, there was fire coursing through those ugly, teal jerseys. Whoever wins, their second round opponent will be the benefactor as it is safe to say that the Kings and Sharks are going to beat the humanity out of each other.
I make no predictions.
The Kings could easily lose this series if they don’t stick to their game plan – patient breakouts, not cheating to look for odd-man rushes, staying out of the penalty box (a major concern despite to games without incurring a minor penalty last week) and on the other end of specialty teams, the quick, creative powerplays that Gaborik and Kopitar’s chemistry have allowed.
Home ice is a factor. It weighs against the Kings but can easily be twisted to their advantage. Nothing crushes a team’s spirit quite like losing in front of their fans. The Kings’ Cup run proved as much. Still, the Sharks have an added tenacity at home that gives them the slight edge in a seven game series, the same edge the Kings used to defeat the Sharks last year. The injection of Hertl is a catalyst. Brent Burns can cause problems for the Kings’ defense and rattle their composure. Couture’s shot can be unstoppable.
However, as a student of the game, a Kopitarian preacher, a disciple of Quick, a spouter of Sutterisms, a Jeff Carter fanboy and a man who knows history is not bound to repeat itself but is, rather, the stones laid on the path to the future, it would be irresponsible of me to say the Kings are in any way an underdog. Regular season points may pointedly separate the two clubs but Thursday nigh when the puck drops, they meet as equals.
I believe that in roughly two weeks they will shake hands for the third time, the balance of playoff series victories tipped in favor of the crown.
Man makes laws to protect the Sharks of the ocean, overfished and under-appreciated. Hockey gods make no such writs towards the plight of those in San Jose. Grab your harpoons, guys and gals, it’s time for the playoffs.
Categories: L.A. Kings News