The NHL playoffs are underway and we've already seen some exciting games. To spice things up, I will be starting an NHL/NBA playoff challenge series. Here are the rules: 1. For each round of the NHL and NBA playoffs, I will select one series for the challenge. The participants must pick the team they think will win and the number of games they think the series will be settled in. 2. If the team you selected wins the series, you get 2 points. 3. If the team you selected wins AND you correctly picked the number of games, you get an additional 2 points for a total of 4. 4. If your team wins but you are off on the number estimate by 1 game you get 1 point for a total of 3. 5. If your team wins but you are off by 2 or more games you receive no additional points for a total of 2 points. 6. If your team loses, you can earn a consolation point for either A) having the number of games right or B) if the series goes to 7 games. In this way, it is possible to earn anywhere from 0 to 4 points for each series for a maximum total of 32 points across 8 series (4 NHL, 4 NBA).
The Sharks did not make the postseason in 2015, but in each of the previous two years, the Kings put a painful end to San Jose's title dreams. In 2013, the Sharks played the Kings in the second round. The home team won each game; the higher-seeded Kings advanced with a 2-1 victory in Game 7 at Staples Center. It was the fifth one-goal game in one of the most evenly matched series in recent memory. As painful as that loss was, the Kings found a way to inflict even more heartache in 2014. The Sharks took a 3-0 lead in their Western Conference First Round series and were poised to knock off their Southern California rival. Instead, the Kings found life in a 6-3 win in Game 4 and ran the table, outscoring the Sharks 12-2 in the final three games. Now they meet again, seemingly as evenly matched as ever. The Kings finished with 102 points to earn second place in the Pacific Division. San Jose had 98 and finished third. San Jose won four of five games during the regular season, outscoring the Kings 18-13. But none of that matters in the playoffs, as the Kings have proven twice in the past three seasons. For the Sharks, all that matters during the next two weeks is being one game better than Los Angeles and putting the curse of the Kings behind them.
Los Angeles was a top-heavy team for much of the season, riding centers Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter while many of the other forwards struggled. Kopitar led the Kings in scoring for the ninth straight season, drew the top defensive assignments and will likely get votes for the Selke Trophy. When coach Darryl Sutter needs to get another player going, he usually puts him with Kopitar. Carter was slowed by an upper-body injury in December and his production dipped, but he's their best finisher and still managed to be a 20-goal scorer. The line of Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Milan Lucic was the Kings' best toward the end of the season. Toffoli became the Kings' first 30-goal scorer since Kopitar in 2008-09. Tenacious on the boards and skilled around the net, Toffoli's numbers are reflective of his offensive instincts in full bloom. Lucic initially struggled to adjust to a new team in a new conference, but he eventually became the tough power forward the Kings envisioned when they acquired him from the Boston Bruins last summer. He finished with 20 goals and 55 points. Tanner Pearson had bouts of inconsistency, especially when they needed him to help fill the void left by Marian Gaborik, who is expected to return from a sprained knee that has kept him out since Feb.12. Pearson had streaks of 10 and 14 games without a goal, but remains one of their better forecheckers and finished with a career-high 15 goals. Vincent Lecavlier invigorated the offense after arriving in January by scoring five goals in his first 11 games as a King. He provides depth at center and another veteran for a playoff run. Captain Dustin Brown was invisible for long stretches and at times was relegated to a bottom-six role. Drew Doughty reasserted himself as a Norris Trophy candidate with 51 points, the most since he had 59 in 2009-10, when he was the second-youngest Norris finalist. Doughty was superb in his own zone and continued to log big minutes. Brayden McNabb, who's more of a physical presence, benefited from being paired with Doughty. Alex Martinez had a career-high 31 points and formed an effective partnership with Jake Muzzin for much of the second half before an undisclosed injury in the final days of the regular season. Muzzin continued to make strides as a big-bodied puck mover who can take on more responsibility. Luke Schenn provided another hard-nosed defender upon his arrival in January, and Rob Scuderi's stay-at-home stability and penalty-killing skills paid immediate dividends after the Kings acquired him before the NHL Trade Deadline. Jonathan Quick set a franchise record with 40 wins and kept the Kings afloat for so long he may get some votes for the Vezina Trophy. Quick allowed one or fewer goals in 15 of his first 34 games. The 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner can steal games and knows how to win in the playoffs. Jhonas Enroth, signed last summer, adjusted to the backup role and finished with a 2.17 GAA in 16 games.
San Jose is one of the NHL's highest-scoring teams in large part because of a deep and skilled group of forwards, led by first-line center Joe Thornton and right wing Joe Pavelski. At age 36, Thornton (19 goals, 63 assists, 82 points) turned back the clock and had his best season since putting up 89 points in 2009-10. He's still one of hockey's best passers, but has become such a force defensively that he's been mentioned as a possible Selke Trophy candidate. Thornton was also one of the NHL's top point producers during the final three months of the season. Pavelski (38-40-78), in his first season as captain, had at least 30 goals and 30 assists for the fourth time in his career and had more than 70 points for the third straight season. Pavelski has led by example on the ice, doing his best work in the tough areas in front of the net. Off the ice, he has been an even more vocal leader now that he wears the "C." After spending time as a center earlier in the season, Tomas Hertl was moved to left wing on the top line and has thrived with Thornton and Pavelski. His 21 goals are a career high, and he's learned to take better advantage of his 6-foot-2, 215-pound body in front of the net. The Sharks struggled early in the season in part because Logan Couture missed 30 games with a broken leg, then a thigh injury and internal bleeding. He had surgery twice. After Couture returned and became a fixture as the second-line center on Dec. 30, the Sharks went 8-2-1 in their next 11 games and began a serious playoff push. Their depth down the middle with Thornton, Couture, Patrick Marleau and Chris Tierney has created mismatches. San Jose's forward group is much deeper than it was a year ago, enabling coach Peter DeBoer to roll four lines and keeping his top forwards fresh. The Sharks signed former Washington Capitals right wing Joel Ward during the offseason, adding a solid veteran with 517 games of NHL experience. He finished with 21 goals and 22 assists, adding valuable secondary scoring. "I think we've got a great group in here that's capable of doing a lot of great things," Ward said. "Just excited to see what happens in the postseason. There's a lot of guys that could step up at any time." The Sharks added veteran depth on Nov. 24 when they signed forward Dainius Zubrus, who played for DeBoer with the New Jersey Devils. They acquired forward Nick Spaling from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 22. Each can play center or wing and is comfortable skating on the fourth line or in the top six, giving DeBoer flexibility. Joonas Donskoi, a rookie from Finland, has been a free-agent find. Donskoi is known most for his offensive skill, but he's also a responsible two-way player. Melker Karlsson got off to a slow start because of an off-season injury, but the second-year player from Sweden has rounded into shape and made an impact as a relentless puck hound. Tommy Wingels led the forwards in hits (203) and had 54 blocked shots. Matt Nieto, who was sidelined down the stretch with a broken knuckle, is one of the fastest Sharks. Brent Burns has been the key figure in a much-improved defensive corps. He had a career year, playing his way into the Norris Trophy conversation by setting single-season franchise records for goals (27) and points (75) by a defenseman. He also had more shots on goal (353) in a season than any player in franchise history. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Burns takes full advantage of his unusually quick, powerful and accurate wrist shot. He's aggressive and unpredictable, joining the rush and shooting from all angles. The Sharks signed Paul Martin, a stay-at-home type, as a free agent during the offseason, and he turned out to be a perfect partner for Burns. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who was sidelined by a knee injury down the stretch, is San Jose's top shutdown defenseman, but he has joined the rush more this season. Partner Justin Braun had a bounce-back season. The Sharks acquired Roman Polak from the Toronto Maple Leafs in late February, and he added veteran depth and much-needed muscle in front of the crease. Polak has been paired with Brenden Dillon, another physical defenseman who had had the best season of his career. Martin Jones and James Reimer are a solid goaltending duo. San Jose paid a steep price to acquire Jones last June, sending a first-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and a prospect to the Boston Bruins. But in his first full season as a starter, the former King has proven to be well worth the price. Jones made 19 saves in a 5-1 victory against the Kings at Staples Center in his Sharks debut, then had back-to-back shutouts against the Anaheim Ducks and Washington Capitals in his next two starts. He finished with a 37-23-4 record, a 2.27 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage. After backup Alex Stalock struggled for much of the season, the Sharks acquired Reimer from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 27. Reimer went 6-2-0 with a 1.62 GAA and three shutouts in eight games with the Sharks and gives them insurance in case Jones is injured. He's played well enough to earn a chance for some playoff action.