2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs – First Round Series Preview
Western Conference -
(7) Los Angeles Kings vs. (2) San Jose Sharks
For the first time in both of these franchises’ history they will play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This all- California series should be very intense and interesting considering how much both teams and fan bases hate each other. The Sharks are another team that always seems to underperform in the playoffs, but there is no reason why they shouldn’t skate pass their instate rival in the first round. Moreover, the fact that San Jose was able to win two playoff series last year and advance to the Western Conference Finals should give this aging team the confidence needed to escape the first round once again.
The season ending injury to Los Angeles center Anze Kopitar on March 26 seems to be the difference right now. The Kings had a realistic chance of going toe-to-toe with San Jose with Kopitar on the ice, but without him, L.A. will need to find – and gain – offense in unlikely places and from unexpected sources. The Kings will need to crash the net, get some friendly bounces, and try to screen Antti Niemi, the Sharks’ newly-acquired goaltender who won the Stanley Cup last year with the Chicago Blackhawks. It will be an undeniable point of intrigue to see how Niemi carries himself one year after winning hockey’s ultimate prize with a different team. In past playoff seasons, including last year, San Jose had Evgeni Nabokov in net, but the San Jose franchise decided to cut bait and let the Russian go so that Niemi could enter the fold. It’s ironic: Niemi helped Chicago sweep away San Jose in the West finals last spring. Now, Niemi will try to steer the Sharks to the place Chicago found in June of 2010 in Philadelphia: Hoisting Lord Stanley’s revered trophy and washing away decades of disappointment. Yes, it bears mentioning that San Jose has never reached the Cup finals despite owning lots of great teams and having won the President’s Trophy (for the league’s best regular-season point total) on a few occasions. The Sharks could be propelled by the memory of last year’s decent playoff run, but they could still be weighed down by an even larger and more oppressive history.
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The key matchup in this series, at least the one that will get the most attention from the hockey cognoscenti, will be the Sharks’ second-ranked power play unit against the Kings’ fourth-ranked penalty killing unit. Whoever wins this battle more than likely will win the series and advance to the next round. With that having been said, the featured clash in a given series must always be counterbalanced by the other confrontation. Indeed, then: What will happen when the Kings’ power play goes up against the Sharks’ penalty kill? If L.A., which is offense-poor, can get into 5-on-4 situations and convert, the balance of power in the California Series could shift in a direction few pundits currently anticipate.
It’s up to San Jose to slam the door on an inferior foe in the first round once again.
By: Matt Zemek
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer
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