The San Jose Sharks cannot shake the demons of past Stanley Cup-playoff failures ahead of opening the Pacific Division semifinals with a visit to the Los Angeles Kings Thursday, April 13. Wednesday, CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz was one of many noting the difference between the teams now and their last postseason meeting.
Instead of looking at numbers accumulated over a 2015-16 NHL season before either team made improvements for just this time of year that his preview Monday included, we will examine the differences he outlined in personnel. San Jose points to its roster changes, but are they enough to get over the hump against Los Angeles?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Sharks are not the same team that choked a 3-0 series lead in the 2014 Pacific Division semifinals and the Kings are not the team that rode that momentum all the way to a second Stanley Cup in three seasons, but this series will have the same ending as the last two.
It will resemble the 2013 series more than The Great San Jose Choke of 2014, but Los Angeles wins in seven either way. The reality is their makeup is not that different as both teams will dress at least half the players that were a part of their last Stanley Cup-playoff series.
When it comes down to it, the Kings won those series because they were a better team willing to cross the line to succeed. The Sharks were not the same in 2014 after having Marc-Edouard Vlasic knocked out in the fifth game by goon tactics that have nothing to do with actual hockey, and no one should get away with that.
Earlier in that season, Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown felt safe enough to deliver a knee-on-knee hit on Calder-Trophy candidate Tomas Hertl. San Jose has not been a team that goons had to fear, only retaliating through meaningless and gratuitous fights when a loss was certain—witness the final minutes of blowout losses in 2011 (Game 4 vs. Vancouver Canucks), 2012 (Game 2 vs. St. Louis Blues) and 2014 (Game 4) in each year’s elimination series.
One thing that might be different this season is the Sharks would probably stick up for their teammates this time. If the Kings have to resort to thuggery, that is probably a bad sign for their Stanley Cup chances.
The problem for San Jose is it should not be necessary. It really does come down to the rosters.
As well as Martin Jones and James Reimer have played, neither is likely to out-perform Jonathan Quick. As well as Brent Burns has played (and if you think he is still a bad defender, you missed his vast improvement over the 2015-16 NHL season), he is not Drew Doughty. Neither is Vlasic even if fully healed and not rusty.
Los Angeles thus has the advantage in the two most important positions on the ice. Probably everyone else on the roster is at best as good as his counterpart (especially if Marian Gaborik is not healthy), but it should be enough because most other factors are too minimal to give either team an appreciable advantage.
Interestingly, the Sharks had the best road record (28-10-3) on the 2015-16 NHL season but the fifth-worst home record (18-20-3). The Kings were more balanced overall with the seventh-best home team (26-12-3) and eight-best road team (22-16-3), but struggled on the road in their last six with only an overtime win against the defenseless Calgary Flames in that span.
At best that gives San Jose a small edge, and its 3-1-1 head-to-head record this season is probably also insignificant. What could more important would be a stronger finish, but 7-5-0 after March 19 (the worst possible comparison of more than seven games for Los Angeles) is not that much better than 4-6-1.
The Sharks were the most-travelled team on the 2015-16 NHL season but have been at home for 12 of their last 16 games. They could travel one more time in this series than the Kings, but an hour-long flight down the coast is also insignificant.
In any event, all of that combined could not offset the edge Los Angeles gets from simply having a great deal more success in the Stanley Cup playoffs than San Jose since the only time it last came up on the wrong end of a series in 2011. With a little additional revenge motivation, even that could mean little.
Ultimately, the Sharks will not lose this series because of travel, past failures or any intangibles or motivations. They will lose because the Kings may have the best two players in the world teaming up on their back end.