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Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Los Angeles vs. San Jose
By Michael Rushton, NHL Contributing Editor
LOS ANGELES KINGS (5th seed, West)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 27-16-5
2013 PLAYOFFS: Defeated St. Louis 4-2 in conference quarterfinals
(Sports Network) - With their first-round victory, the Los Angeles Kings became the first team in NHL history to win five straight playoff series despite opening each set on the road.
These Kings, though, have had success in their own building this season as well and will open a playoff series at home for the first time since 1992.
As the Western Conference's eighth seed a season ago, the Kings knocked off the Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues, Phoenix Coyotes and New Jersey Devils to win their first ever Stanley Cup championship and did so without home-ice advantage in any of the four rounds.
Los Angeles also opened up the 2013 postseason on the road with a rematch against the Blues and dropped the first two games of the series in St. Louis before rebounding to win the next four contests.
All six games were decided by a single goal and the Kings finally grabbed a series advantage by winning Game 5, 3-2 in overtime on defenseman Slava Voynov's winner eight minutes into the bonus frame before taking Game 6 by a 2-1 margin at home.
It was the Kings' 10th straight victory at home dating back to the regular season.
"I think we're confident now," said Kings center Mike Richards. "A year ago -- I can't compare it to what went on back then, because I barely remember it to be honest with you. We're confident. We still have some work to do, I think. We played well enough to win the series. We can still get better, and that was our goal from day one this year, was to improve right through to the last day. So we have some work to do, and some time to get some bumps and bruises out of the way, and get some practices in."
The Kings will now get ready to open their first playoff series at home since the 1992 division semifinals against the Edmonton Oilers. Los Angeles lost that series in six games and hasn't won a set it opened at home since beating Vancouver in six games during the 1991 division semifinals.
L.A. is 4-5 all-time in the playoffs in sets that begin at home.
After averaging 2.73 goals per game during the regular season, the Kings averaged just two per contest versus the Blues, but turned up the defense by yielding just 1.67 goals per game. A lot of the credit should go to netminder and reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick, who allowed more than two goals in a game just once during the series with the Blues.
Even more important, Quick did not get rattled after losing the first two games of the set following an inconsistent regular season. He ended Round 1 with a 1.58 goals against average, .944 save percentage and one shutout.
Another key to the victory was the heavy minutes logged by defenseman Drew Doughty. The 23-year-old averaged 28 minutes and 49 seconds per game, posting 33:37 of ice time in the extended Game 5. That didn't stop him from scoring a goal and notching 25:02 of ice time in the series finale.
Voynov also had a knack for coming up big as he matched his regular season total with two game-winning goals in the series while leading the team with a plus-5 rating.
Veterans Rob Scuderi and Robyn Regehr also averaged over 20 minutes per game for a solid core at the blue line, while rookie Jake Muzzin saw a slight dip in ice time after leading the Kings with a plus-16 rating during the regular season. He had a pair of assists and was a minus-2 in the first round while averaging 15:36 of ice time.
The Kings got balanced scoring versus the Blues, with Jeff Carter leading the team with three goals. He finished fourth in the NHL during the regular season with 26 goals and had a league-high eight game-winners before coming up big with a pair of goals in Game 5.
Carter's former teammate in Philadelphia, Richards, led the Kings with five points -- all assists -- while Justin Williams and Dustin Penner also had a pair of goals versus the Blues. Penner had the series clincher, scoring with 0.2 seconds left in the second period in Game 6.
Dwight King added a pair of assists to form a solid second line with Richards and Carter, while Anze Kopitar had a goal and three assists in the six games skating with Williams and Dustin Brown. That line will look to chip in more offensively in Round 2, while Penner while try to stay hot to add even more depth on the third line with Trevor Lewis and Jarret Stoll.
SAN JOSE SHARKS (6th seed, West)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 25-16-7
2013 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Vancouver 4-0 in conference quarterfinals
Expectations for the San Jose Sharks were certainly lowered when they followed up a Western Conference finals series loss in 2011 with last year's quick first-round five-game exit.
And while San Jose opened the season with seven straight wins to become quick contenders, a mid-season fade and ultimate sixth seed had many once again writing off the Sharks.
A solid four-game sweep of the Northwest Division-champion Vancouver Canucks may have changed all that.
One knock on this edition of the Sharks was the fact that the club went just 8-14-2 on the road this season, negating an outstanding 17-2-5 mark at home.
In fact, San Jose did not lose its second home game in regulation until April 21 and was one of only three teams this season to have two separate seven-game winning streaks, joining the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks. However, of those 14 wins over the two streaks, 11 came at home.
So there had to have been a sense of relief when the Sharks won their first two games in Vancouver before opening up the home portion of its playoff schedule with a 5-2 victory in Game 3. San Jose then showed its resilience, again rallying from behind to win the series-clincher 4-3 in overtime.
"In the past you kind of felt the pressure. This year we didn't feel that way and maybe that carried through into third periods," said Sharks head coach Todd McLellan.
"We're a loose group, playing free. (There's) not a lot of expectations that are put on us from the outside that have been on us in the past."
The Sharks used an excellent power play to get by the Canucks, scoring seven of their 15 goals on the man advantage. All three of Logan Couture's first- round goals came on the power play, while Joe Pavelski also scored a trio of goals on the man advantage.
That helped the duo pace the Sharks with eight points each, taking some pressure off of expected scorers Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Not that the two didn't do their jobs, with Thornton notching four power-play assists as part of his six first-round points. Marleau added four goals and an assist versus Vancouver.
In addition to killing off two of 10 short-handed situations, the defensive story was goaltender Antti Niemi, who helped the Chicago Blackhawks win a Stanley Cup in 2010 but had been less than impressive during his two playoff runs with the Sharks.
That all changed in the first round, with the 2013 Vezina Trophy finalist winning a pair of overtime games while posting a 1.86 goals against average and .937 save percentage.
In front of Niemi, McLellan continued to spread his minutes out between his six defenders. Dan Boyle (23 minutes) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (22 minutes, 40 seconds) were the team leaders, while Justin Braun, Brad Stuart, Matt Irwin and Scott Hannan all averaged at least 17 minutes of ice time per game.
That also allowed former blueliner Brent Burns to remain up front at forward, where he notched a goal and two assists.
Boyle, Burns and Hannan combined for two goals and seven points, while forward Raffi Torres provided some energy with 14 hits to along with solid speed.
Depth could be an issue for the Sharks in Round 2. Forward Martin Havlat did not play after Game 1 due to injury and there is no timetable for his return, while fellow winger Adam Burish, a key penalty killer, is not expected to play this round due to an upper body injury.
Veteran Scott Gomez filled in for Havlat, while it is unknown who McLellan will turn to in place of Burish, who appeared in all four games.
This will mark just the second postseason meeting between these two Pacific Division rivals. The Sharks got the best of the Kings in six games during the 2011 conference quarterfinals. Thornton, Marleau and Couture all had two goals and three assists in the set, while Pavelski had three goals.
The Kings and Sharks split four regular-season meetings this year, with each team winning twice at home. The Sharks and Kings faced off in their respective regular-season finales, with L.A. notching a 3-2 win.
Los Angeles has won six of its last seven at home versus the Sharks, but has dropped six in a row in San Jose.
Williams paced the Kings with two goals and six points versus the Sharks this season, while Brown scored three times. Kopitar and Scuderi had four assists each, while Quick was 1-0-1 with a 2.74 GAA and .903 save percentage in three games.
Burns led the Sharks with six assists and eight points in the four meetings with the Kings, while Couture added three goals. T.J. Galiardi and Irwin both scored twice.
Niemi went 2-2-0 with a 3.31 GAA and .904 save percentage in four games versus the Kings in 2013.
While the Sharks may be playing with the pressure off, the Kings continue to take a no nonsense approach to the playoffs. That has Los Angeles performing at a high level despite the weight of being defending champions.
San Jose will have some extra rest ahead of this series and is certainly prepared for a long series with some fresh defenders, but will have to solve a Los Angeles defense that yielded only two power-play goals in 17 short-handed situations.
Quick and Niemi should keep these games from being high-scoring affairs, but Los Angeles' offensive depth should eventually get the better of San Jose.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Kings in 6
05/13 14:57:46 ET
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