By Mary Walsh
After the 3-0 loss to the Nashville Predators Saturday night, the odds are pretty slim that the San Jose Sharks will face anyone but the Los Angeles Kings in the first round. Facing the Kings carries an expectation of excessive wear and tear. But there are more reasons than that for the Sharks to have preferred a different opponent for the first round. It is worth looking at how they match up against the Kings, as opposed to the Wild and the Stars, the most likely Wild Card candidates.
The Sharks have beaten each of the three teams twice this season, but they lost to the Kings three times, and only once to each of the other two. All three games against the Stars went to overtime, and except for one 4-1 loss, all the games against the Kings were one goal games. Only the games against the Wild were mostly two-goal games.
The Sharks hold a slight lead over the Stars in goal per game, made more slight on Saturday. The Sharks now average 2.90 to the Stars’ 2.88. The Kings and the Wild trail both teams significantly.
On the defensive side, the Kings gave up the fewest goals per game this season, with a miniscule 2.05. The Sharks are not far behind in the rankings at fourth. Numerically, the gap is bigger with the Sharks averaging 2.34 goals against. The Wild are just a hair behind that with 2.38. Dallas is the conspicuous standout here, having given up an average of 2.77 goals per game.
The Wild is the only one of the three with better power play results for the season, at 18% to the Sharks’ 17.6%. The Kings come close in penalty killing at 82.9%, but the Sharks still did better there than any of the possible opponents with 84.4%.
The Sharks and the Kings are first and second in faceoffs, while the Wild are 13th and the Stars 15th. The Sharks would have had a clear advantage against either of the latter there.
In goaltending, the Sharks’ starter Antti Niemi only has the advantage over the Dallas goaltenders. The Kings’ Jonathan Quick has turned in another statistically excellent season. Even the Minnesota goalie carousel has produced better results on average. The Wild have had some bad luck with the health of their goaltenders, and they will probably rely on recently-acquired Ilya Bryzgalov to start the playoffs. Josh Harding has returned to practice but there is no timeline on his return to play. Minnesota’s backup, Darcy Kuemper, has played well in his rookie season but he is not ready to carry the full load of a playoff team. Bryzgalov has not played many games in the NHL this season but he has played pretty well, including a shutout of the Penguins Saturday.
The Sharks’ Alex Stalock has excellent numbers but has started fewer than 20 games and is unlikely to be the playoff starter. He has played extremely well, but in limited appearances against select opponents. It would be unreasonable to expect the Sharks to give him the edge over Niemi.
Los Angeles defenseman Drew Doughty left Thursday’s game against the Sharks after an odd collision, but it isn’t clear how long that will keep the Kings’ lynchpin blueliner out of the game. His absence would of course benefit the Sharks.
It certainly would have been a better matchup for the Sharks to play the Wild, unless the uncertain status of the Wild goaltending tripped the Sharks up as it seems invariably to do. Additionally, the Sharks have had trouble beating teams well below them in the standings lately. Would that carry over to the playoffs? Probably not, but it is something to consider as a faint consolation.
In any case, it all appears moot since the Sharks still trail the Ducks and only have three games left to overtake them. The Kings will most likely be their dance partner in the first round, with only home ice to bolster San Jose’s chances. If Tomas Hertl returns for the second round, and if Raffi Torres returns for the first, the Sharks still have a shot to go deep, but they will have to get by Los Angeles with a minimum of casualties.