Not only were a lot of people surprised that the San Jose Sharks ousted the Los Angeles Kings in Round 1 of the playoffs a few days ago, a lot were surprised at how they did it. They beat the mess out of the Kings. Taking the series in 5 games, the Sharks put up 17 goals against a very good defensive unit accompanied by usual playoff mainstay Jonathan Quick. Though the Sharks quietly finished 4th in the league in scoring during the regular season, the matchup with the Kings was expected to be a tough one, as the Kings usually play a very tight defensive game in the playoffs, protecting Quick from having to do too much.
But San Jose made quick work of all that nonsense. Taking the first two games in Staples Center, their only stumble was in Game 3, where they lost in overtime. They took Game 4 and Game 5 in spectacular fashion... especially Game 5, where they scored thrice in the 3rd period to put several nails in the Kings' coffin. The Sharks have been sitting around for a week or so, waiting for the Predators to beat the Ducks of course.
To preview this matchup, we will first take a look at the San Jose forwards.
The Top Line: Thornton, Pavelski, Hertl
The most threatening line on the Sharks team is their top line of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Tomas Hertl. These three were an absolute nightmare for the Kings, combining for 7 goals and 4 assists in 5 games. Pavelski was the main goal scorer with 5 goals, but the engine of this top line is undoubtedly Joe Thornton. Throughout the season, Thornton bulldozed his way into the middle of the ice, dishing out a team leading 63 assists and collecting 19 goals. He continues to be one of the most dominant players in the middle of the ice in the entire league:
You won't find many players who play 82 games with rates that high in that slot area. And Thornton's linemates, especially Hertl, are the ones really benefiting from his work in the middle of the ice. With room to work around the outside, they get to take dangerous shots and pick their shots with ease. Hertl scored 21 goals in the regular season, a career high for him, and Pavelski finished with 38, which is 3 away from his career high. Stopping this top line will be essential to shutting down the Sharks offense. And boy will it be tough.
The 2nd Line: Ward, Couture, Donskoi
While the most dangerous line on the Sharks is their top line, I'm honestly more worried about the 2nd line. If the Ribeiro line is forced to deal with Joel Ward, Logan Couture, and Joonas Donskoi, this could be a short series. This line is dynamic and tough. They have intelligence, youth, speed, grit, veteran-presence, and skill... all on one line. First you have Joel Ward, perennial 20-goal workhorse who will simply not be beaten to a puck along the boards. Then you have the two-way, playmaking presence of Logan Couture, who didn't have an incredible regular season, but had 6 points in 5 games against the Kings. He is a dangerous player with a great overall game.
Then you have the new guy, Joonas Donskoi. Getting two goals in Game 5, Donskoi may be getting hot at the right time. Coming over from Finlad, Donskoi had the skills and ability to be a Calder contender, but couldn't get the momentum needed to do so. He was moved around quite a bit this season, even seeing time on the top line with Pavelski and Thornton. Donskoi worries me because he is a wild-card. He could continue his play from Game 5 and be lightning in a bottle for the Sharks. The Preds don't want to work their butts off to contain the top line, only to watch a guy like Donskoi go out and make a name for himself. And yet, even if you contain Donskoi, you still have to handle Wardo and Couture on that 2nd line. Not an easy task.
Again, I really worry about this line against the Ribeiro line. I'd much rather see the Fisher line against this unit. Wilson and Arvidsson can counter-balance the skill and talent of Donskoi and Couture. And would anyone be disappointed in watching Fisher vs. Ward? Classic. Hockey. Matchup:
The Bottom 6
The Preds 4th line was essential in getting the series win over the Ducks. Paul Gaustad, for as much criticism as he's received this year, played a great series and ended up with the series winning goal. But the Sharks have a formidable 4th line as well. With Nick Spaling, Chris Tierney, and Tommy Wingels, this group generated scoring chances and shots at surprisingly high rates... rates even higher than the Sharks' top lines:
Wingels, Spaling and Tierney all generated more SC/60 than both Joe's in that first round match-up with the Kings. And look at Wingels! With less than 10 minutes of average ice-time, he did some work in the offensive end of the ice. The group wasn't able to capitalize on their chances (only 1 goal generated by these three players in the series), but those rates are nothing to mess with. Any team that can get the puck into scoring position with regularity can put goals on the board. With their ferocious forechecking, this group will be a tough task for the Gaustad group.
As for the 3rd line, Patrick Marleau leads Matt Nieto and Melker Karlsson for yet another balanced line from the Sharks. Marleau finished the regular season with a reasonable 25 goals and has yet to show signs of slowing down. I'm not worried as much about Karlsson or Nieto as they just don't produce enough scoring chances to balance their below average possession play. But Marleau is dangerous enough to make that 3rd line a worrisome one... I'd like to see the Ribeiro line against that group. I like the prospects of Craig Smith and Calle Jarnkrok generating some counter attacks and taking advantage of turnovers.
Age. This group of forwards is very, very good, but they are also very old. The majority of their production is from 30+ year-olds: Thornton and Marleau are 36, Ward is 35 and Pavelski is 31. This time of year, age is probably more of a benefit than a hindrance... you need guys in your lineup who have been here before. But when the majority of your lineup comes from guys that old, you have to think some weakness sets in. Will the Sharks be able to maintain their momentum with their aging forwards? Probably so. The Predators will have to be even better defensively than they were in the Ducks series to contain the forwards in this group.