The 2011 NHL Playoffs got started on Wednesday, and everybody who was supposed to win, did win. Now, the San Jose Sharks will get their quarterfinal series started when they host the Los Angeles Kings for game one of a best-of-seven series. Last year, the Sharks were bounced in the Western Conference finals against the Chicago Blackhawks after rolling through the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings in the quarters and semis. The run did a lot to erase the perception of "choking" around the league for San Jose, but the 4-0 sweep from Chicago was not fun by any means, and not acceptable for a team that's been so close for so long.
They found themselves so close in 2010, and then when this 2010-2011 season started, things started going horribly wrong for a moment there. One wondered if the conference finals were the top of the mountain for the Sharks, as they failed to string together wins, and then eventually found themselves at a point where they were dropping six straight games. For the first time in years, Sharks fans had a reason to doubt whether or not their team would actually make the playoffs, after being a fixture for so long.
Yeah ... about that.
San Jose, on the back of players like Patrick Marleau, Devin Setoguchi, and rookie sensation Logan Couture, turned things around and rattled off five-and-eight-game winning streaks. Marleau put up the production (73 points) that you expect out of him at this point, while Couture notched 32 goals as a rookie. Perhaps bigger than all of that, though, was the play of goalie Antti Niemi. When the season began, the Sharks envisioned a tandem of Niemi and Antero Niittymaki, and it was an alright rotation at first, Niittymaki looked better than Niemi early on, but injuries thrust "Nemo" into the starting role.
35-18-6 was Niemi's final mark, including a monster stretch where he had something like six thousand wins and zero losses. In a row. It happened. Either way, goalie is a strength for San Jose as it stands, and it should going forward, as Niemi was signed to a four-year contract extension.
Now how about Los Angeles? They're a balanced team with great defense, a great goaltender, and a few players who can turn up offensive production at any point in any game. Their problem? Their top two offensive guys have been out with injuries, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams, respectively. They both went down in March, Kopitar with an ankle injury that required surgery, and Williams with a dislocated shoulder. Williams remains a possibility to return for the playoffs, though. Kopitar won't be back until next season.
Last season, the Kings were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Vancouver Canucks. Jonathan Quick struggled in that first round, sporting a 3.50 GAA, as the Kings fell 4-2. The Kings will have to stick to their game of playing good defense, which might be an understatement. Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson (along with the aforementioned Quick) spearheaded a Los Angeles defense that was good for 85.5 percent on the penalty kill (fourth in the league) and allowed only 198 goals all season, good for fifth in the league.
These two teams split their meetings this season, though San Jose got all three of their wins in regulation, whereas the Kings relied on the shootout twice - something they won't be able to do for this playoff series. In fact, Jonathan Quick was 10-0 in shootouts, and that's a big factor going forward. If he can't hold on to his leads in regulation, he loses, and that's the bottom line. When it comes to a team that plays good defense that often leads to stalemates versus a team that thrives on offense all over it's lines, the team with the offense should prevail given long enough to do so, without having to worry about the shootout.
Both goalies have good showings in the series, Niemi going 2-1-2 with a 1.94 GAA, while Quick went 3-2-0 with a 2.19 GAA. Marleau, Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski had three goals apiece, while the likely-to-return Justin Williams had none. Dustin Brown had four goals over the series for the Kings.
So it's all very simple: the Sharks need to come out and score fast, they need to be on the board first, and then they can take advantage of potential lapses in defense from the Kings while they try and compensate. If Los Angeles gets on the board first, it will very much be an uphill battle as they tighten up defensively.