Third-place Kings vs. second-place Sharks
Kings strengths: Jonathan Quick might very well be the best goalie in the NHL. The Kings’ ability to stick to Darryl Sutter’s defensive-minded script is another plus. Their experience in winning the Stanley Cup in 2012 and advancing to the Western Conference finals last season is invaluable.
Sharks strengths: Joe Pavelski is in the midst of a career-best season. Logan Couture and Joe Thornton give the Sharks a healthy dash of skill and creativity and a reason to fear their offensive attack. Their defense corps is big and mobile and can be dangerous at any given moment.
Kings weaknesses: They can be addicted to a stogy brand of hockey that relies all too often on cycling the puck and playing on the perimeter. They also tend to rely too much on Quick, who has come up big for them so often in big games that it’s a stunner when he’s not at his best.
Sharks weaknesses: Thornton is a finesse player locked inside a power forward’s body. It’s not easy to take him out of his game, but he’s been known to disappear at the worst possible moments for the Sharks. Antti Niemi’s play in goal has been suspect and it’s unclear if he’ll be their starter.
X-factor: The Sharks will have home-ice advantage in the best-of-7 series. The Kings had it when the teams met in the second round of the playoffs last season. The Kings won in seven games, when every game was won by the home team. A repeat would favor the Sharks in Game 7 this time.
King to watch: Anze Kopitar has been superb in all facets of the game and some local scribes have mentioned him as a top pick for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best two-way forward. The arrival of Marian Gaborik in a trade March 5 has only made Kopitar more dangerous offensively.
Shark to watch: Thornton is a fascinating figure, but Pavelski is a real difference-maker this season. Pavelski is a threat every time he steps on the ice and you can bet the Kings will shadow him on every shift. If the series is as tight as expected, he could swing things in the Sharks’ favor.
The pick: Kings will win in seven games.