- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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Having personally witnessed last spring's seven-game series between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings, let me just say what a joy it is to see them clash yet again. The Kings won the second-round series by a hair last spring, all seven games won by the home team, including Game 7 at Staples Center. It was sweet revenge for the Kings after a 2011 six-game defeat by the Sharks. Meeting in the playoffs for the third time in four years, it won't take long for this series to get ratcheted up a notch. These teams don't like each other. That was obvious April 3, their last meeting of the 2013-14 regular season, the Sharks prevailing 2-1 at home in a very physical and chippy affair, each team seemingly trying to send a message ahead of a likely first-round series. And perhaps the Sharks needed badly to win that game because the Kings had won three of the previous four meetings this season, the Sharks losing both games in Los Angeles. This time around, if there is a Game 7, it will be at the SAP Center in San Jose. Will home ice matter as much this time around? The Sharks certainly hope so. The Kings will try to duplicate their 2012 Cup-champion road-warrior ways, when they went a sensational 10-1 in enemy buildings that spring en route to their first-ever championship.
Kings: Drew Doughty
The star blueliner banged up his shoulder late in the regular season, so all eyes will be on how he fares early in this series. If he's close to healthy, there isn't a player on either team who can have a bigger impact on the flow of a game. He's a stud at both ends of the ice and has the knack to step up the bigger the game is, as we saw once again at the Sochi Olympics this year.
Sharks: Marc-Edouard Vlasic
For too long an underrated player, Vlasic got more national attention for his sparkling and steady play in Sochi, where he just happened to be Doughty's partner on defense for Olympic-champion Team Canada. What many fans in other markets found out from Sochi is what people in San Jose have known for a long time: Vlasic is as dependable and mistake-free as they come in his own zone, while also adding a bit more offense to his game this season. He'll be charged with trying to shut down the Kings' top line in this series.
Hero In Waiting
Kings: Justin Williams
The 32-year-old winger just has a knack for scoring the clutch goal in big matchups, particularly in Game 7s. He had a pair of goals last spring in the Game 7 win over the Sharks, and throughout his career has always showed the ability to step up in big games. The oft-injured Williams also has been able to stay healthy this season, not missing any games. On a team where more focus will lie with the likes of Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik and Jeff Carter when it comes to offense up front, Williams could again be the sneaky weapon.
Sharks: Joe Pavelski
Speaking of players who have a knack for coming up big in big games, the Big Pavelski doesn't shy away from the playoff stage either, putting up a team-leading 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 11 games last spring. The two-time Team USA Olympian thrives under pressure. He's also a versatile star, able to play the wing on Joe Thornton's line, where he put up big numbers for most of the season, or he can slide back down to the No. 3 center spot if need be, giving San Jose dangerous depth down the middle if the coaching staff chooses to do that. Either way, Pavelski figures to be a major storyline in this playoff series again.
The Kings enter the playoffs as one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league. Of course, when you're the stingiest defensive team in the league and have a top-five ranking in my favorite statistic, goals-against ratio, perhaps there's no reason to care. Also, the trade deadline addition of Gaborik helped the offense not just through his own individual contributions, but his presence helped bring more balance to the way the Kings' forward lines fleshed out and contributed. As the Kings showed in winning the Cup in 2012, defense matters more than offense. Still, this is the area where the Kings struggle at times, putting the puck in the net.
Seems awfully mean to pick on Antti Niemi when once again he was among the leaders in wins, but the comment is within the context of the guy he's facing in the other net. In a series that was decided by the slimmest of margins last year, it's a fact that Jonathan Quick got the better of Niemi and, if home ice was the biggest factor in that series, goaltending was a very close second. Niemi wasn't bad in that series, but he wasn't to the level of Quick. It's unfair, perhaps, but the Sharks need Niemi, a Cup winner in 2010 with Chicago, to be as close to Quick's level as possible in order to win it. The reality is that while Niemi piled up the wins again, his playing level wasn't quite the norm for him, his save percentage down from the past few seasons. He needs to step it up for San Jose to win.
I know the Sharks have home-ice advantage, which is not insignificant given how well they play at home, but at the end of the day, I just can't wrap my mind around Quick getting the losing end of his matchup with Niemi. I'm also concerned by the way the Sharks played overall the last few weeks of the regular season. They didn't look as sharp as they need to be. Kings in 6