Los Angeles Kings (second in the Pacific) versus San Jose Sharks (third in the Pacific)
Oooooh, the delicious script is set. Two years after a 3-0 series lead evaporated to the rival Kings in the opening round of the playoffs, a soul-crushing elimination that left traumatizing aftereffects for at least a year in San Jose, the Sharks now get to play giant killers versus the favored Kings. The series between California rivals pits two clubs who missed the playoffs last year, the Kings missing out after winning the Cup in 2014. They are very much rested and motivated this season to regain their status among the NHL elite, which they did with their regular-season play. The Sharks missed out a year ago as the retooling on the fly of the franchise played itself out, an offseason that brought on fresh faces both behind the bench and on the ice, fueling a comeback season in the Bay Area. The pressure is on the favored Kings, leaving the Sharks to play the underdog, which might just suit them perfectly. On the other hand, this is a savvy, two-time championship Kings core led by Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick that has all the goods to win another NHL title.
How they win
Los Angeles: Doughty had a Norris Trophy-worthy regular season in large part by being the monster shutdown man. His assignment in this series will be to go head-to-head with Sharks veteran center Joe Thornton, who had yet another outstanding season. If Doughty wins that matchup, it goes a long way to ensure a Kings win. The Kings also win if Quick gets the better of his pupil Martin Jones in goal. Offensively, the 1-2 punch of Kopitar and Jeff Carter down the middle is one heck of a handful for almost anyone, making them so difficult to match up against.
San Jose: Although they rarely get mentioned when people talk about teams coming out of the Pacific Division to challenge for the Cup -- Anaheim and Los Angeles are the favored picks -- the Sharks finished just four points behind the Kings in the standings and won the season series 3-1-1, including a 5-2 win in their final game, on March 28, in San Jose. Motivation aside from that 2014 first-round loss, the Sharks can win if former Kings backup Jones can deliver the kind of goaltending a No. 1 must provide in the playoffs. He doesn't have to be as good as Quick, but he's got to be solid enough for the Sharks to not feel like they're starting every game down a goal. In addition, the Sharks can win this series if their third-ranked power play gets enough opportunities to provide that extra goal that can make all the difference at this time of year.
How they lose
Los Angeles: The Kings have been surprisingly loose defensively in the last few weeks of the regular season, including Game No. 82, when they blew a 3-0 lead in a 4-3 shootout loss to the visiting Winnipeg Jets that cost them the Pacific title. They will lose this series if they don't go back to the kind of defensive hockey we know the Kings for. Further to that, the team's blue-line depth beyond their top four is in question, which perhaps doesn't cost them in the first round but bears monitoring
San Jose: If we see James Reimer before the end of this series, you know something is wrong. Nothing against Reimer, a smart pickup by the Sharks at the trade deadline, but Jones is their No. 1 and if he can't provide steady goaltending in a matchup against his old pal Quick, the Sharks will be toast in a hurry. Perhaps even a bigger factor, top shutdown defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic missed the last few weeks of the regular season recovering from a lower-body injury (he hasn't played since March 17). He should be back for the playoffs, but at what level? When he left the series in 2014, that's when things shifted in the Kings' favor. The Sharks need a healthy Vlasic at his best.
The Kings finished the regular season with a 56.4 Corsi-for percentage -- first in the NHL by a long shot. They were league's most dominant possession team and it's why once again they're a popular pick to contend for the Cup. The Sharks were at 51.7 percent. But consider that Thornton had a 56.1 Corsi-for percentage individually, much higher than the rest of his team's average. Again, it just underlines what a two-way, puck-possession monster Thornton continues to be.
Los Angeles: With Kopitar likely drawing first-team matchups, it opens it up to second-line center Carter to do his thing, and he tends to rise up the bigger the game is. If the Kings prevail in this series, I'm betting on Carter being a major reason.
San Jose: Norris Trophy candidate Brent Burns can change this series with his unique skill from the back end and if he's impactful offensively, it means this is a series the Sharks have a shot to win.
These two rivals match up closer than most people think, although the goaltending edge is clearly in favor of the Kings despite Jones' impressive first season as a starter. In a sport more and more influenced by analytics, which favor the Kings, this will be an interesting test and argument for the emotional side of the game. The Sharks were embarrassed by what happened two years ago. How much of that can influence this series? What I can't get my head around is the goalie advantage. I can't see Jones beating Quick. Kings in seven.