The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is over, and the Kings are the, ahem, kings of California. Since the Kings were predicted by many to be a Stanley Cup contender, that they survived the first round isn’t a tremendous surprise. Then again, since the Kings ended up with the 8 seed and had to face Vancouver, the league’s best team, the Kings’ victory has to be classified as an upset.
While the Kings wait to begin their matchup with the St. Louis Blues in Round 2, they can enjoy their status as the only California team left standing. The Sharks, coming off a mediocre regular season, were just dispatched by the Blues in Round 1. It seems as though the Sharks’ window of opportunity has closed; with no cap room and a depleted pool of prospects, the team must start over with a new core of players. As for Anaheim… let’s just say it’s not 2007 anymore. Despite a mid-season coaching change, the Ducks were poor all year long and need a major rebuild.
That leaves the Kings, for whom the future looks very bright. With Vezina candidate Jonathan Quick and a core that includes Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty, the Kings look to own California for years to come.
However, in spite of all their talent, things didn’t come together for the Kings easily this year. It wasn’t until the Kings rattled off 11 wins in 15 games in February and March that the team began to click offensively. This stretch coincided with the acquisition of Carter, who was struggling on a bad team in Columbus.
The reason why things eventually clicked, though, was because the Kings were extremely fortunate not to suffer any serious injuries. Aside from Dustin Penner landing on injured reserve three times, the biggest injury the Kings faced was Simon Gagne’s season-ending injury in December; Gagne’s production was easily replaced in the Carter deal. As of mid-March, the Kings had the fifth-lowest man games lost to injury in the NHL this year with 140. That means guys were avoiding injuries and not many teeth were being knocked out, but their dental insurance is always in place; this is still hockey! This cohesion helped the defense to board up the goal to the tune of the third-fewest goals against in the league.
Until the offense began to come alive after dealing for Carter, defense was all the Kings had. As a defense-first team, that was fine. The Sharks, however, weren’t so lucky. Though they lost fewer games to injury than the Kings, they lost the one player they couldn’t afford to lose in Martin Havlat, who missed half the season with a hamstring injury. Havlat, who was acquired for perennial 40-goal scorer Dany Heatley in the offseason, was a critical part of the team’s plans; when he went down, the Sharks were unable to replace his offense. The Sharks fell to 2.67 goals per game, a far cry from the 3 goals a game they’ve hovered around for the past few years.
Havlat’s injury is an easy scapegoat, but the Sharks have some work to do if they’re going to approach the Kings in the future. The Sharks’ one edge over the Kings was playoff experience, but this year’s run will nullify that advantage. The Kings have a clear advantage over the Sharks and Ducks for the foreseeable future unless changes are made. It should be exciting to see how the rest of the playoffs turn out and what moves are made in the offseason.