<
>

Niemi starts, Torres returns for Sharks

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Antti Niemi gets the start in goal Thursday night for the San Jose Sharks, who will also welcome the return of Raffi Torres to the lineup for Game 1 of their first-round series with the rival Los Angeles Kings.

Head coach Todd McLellan had been noncommittal over the past few days about his starting goaltending but revealed after Thursday's skate that there was never any debate internally.

"Niemi's our guy," McLellan said.

Meanwhile, the lines from the morning skate:

Joe Pavelski-Joe Thornton-Brent Burns

Patrick Marleau-Logan Couture-Matt Nieto

Tomas Hertl-James Sheppard-Tommy Wingels

Raffi Torres-Andrew Desjardins-Martin Havlat

On defense:

Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Jason Demers

Brad Stuart-Justin Braun

Scott Hannan-Dan Boyle

The skinny:

--Havlat being on the fourth line certainly created a bit of buzz at the morning skate. At least to start Game 1, McLellan feels rookie winger Nieto is a better fit on Couture's line. Mike Brown also took some line rushes on that fourth unit instead of Havlat, so I suspect the Sharks coaching staff will debate between Havlat and Brown for that spot. Havlat, though, can also be spotted on the second power-play unit if he's in the lineup.

--Pavelski stays on Thornton's big line, where he scored most of his 41 goals this season. This will be a continuing storyline all series as far as whether McLellan puts Pavelski back as a No. 3 center or not. But for now, he starts the series on the top line. Pavelski still takes a number of strongside draws while playing on that line, so it's not as if the Sharks wouldn't use his faceoff skills, even if he’s playing wing.

--Rookie Hertl starts on the third line but eventually you figure he might be back with Thornton and Burns at some point in this series if he shows that he's becoming comfortable in his return. He played the last two regular-season games after missing most of the season with a knee injury, which required surgery.

--Torres, who hasn't played since March 8, played only five games this season after also needing knee surgery. I doubt he's 100 percent, but at this time of year you play with what you have. He was an effective player for the Sharks last spring, particularly on the forecheck; we'll have to see how long it takes him to get up to speed.

As for the 2012 Cup champions, everything was as expected at the morning skate:

Marian Gaborik-Anze Kopitar-Justin Williams

Dwight King-Mike Richards-Jeff Carter

Tyler Toffoli-Jarret Stoll-Dustin Brown

Kyle Clifford-Trevor Lewis-Jordan Nolan

Defense:

Jake Muzzin-Drew Doughty

Robyn Regehr-Slava Voynov

Willie Mitchell-Alec Martinez

Richards had a down year in the regular season, but his track record suggests this is when he steps up.

"Mike Richards is our most experienced forward in the playoffs," Kings head coach Darryl Sutter said after his team's morning skate. "He plays his best at this time of year."

Let's drop the puck; this series should be sensational.

"A lot of similarities" between the teams, Sutter said. "The last few years, playoffs, regular season, both teams are very close."