Whether it was Evgeni Nabokov or Antti Niemi, the Sharks have had a clear-cut No. 1 goalie and stuck with him through good and bad.
That could change this year as coach Todd McLellan has yet to commit publicly to either Niemi or Alex Stalock for Game 1 of the first-round series against the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night.
While Niemi started 64 games in the regular season, Stalock put up better numbers, especially down the stretch. That led to questions about whether Niemi will start the opener and whether McLellan will stick with him if he struggles at all against the Kings.
“Either way you’ve got to prepare yourself to be ready to play,” Niemi said.
Niemi has started all 34 playoff games since joining San Jose in 2010-11, including 13 against the Kings. But with Niemi struggling late in the season (3.11 goals-against average in his final six games) and the emergence of Stalock (12-5-2, 1.87 goals-against average, .932 save percentage) McLellan has a tougher choice than usual.
“It’s more about what we do than what they do,” Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. “We know it’s going to be a challenge to score on either guy.”
There are no questions about who will start for Los Angeles as Jonathan Quick leads the NHL in playoff wins (25), shutouts (6), goals-against average (1.62) and has a .940 save percentage the past two postseasons.
Quick won the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP after leading the Kings to the Stanley Cup in 2012 and was outstanding in knocking out San Jose in the second round last year.
“He battles us hard and challenges as well as any goalie in the league,” Sharks forward Tommy Wingels said. “He really comes out and takes the space away.”
Here are five other things to watch in the Pacific Division series:
HOME-ICE ADVANTAGE: The home team has won 16 of the past 17 games in this series, including all seven in last year’s playoffs won by Los Angeles. This time it’s the Sharks who have the home-ice advantage, although the Kings did win 1-0 in San Jose on Jan. 27.
“It doesn’t matter where you play,” Quick said. “You’re playing a game. You’ve got your 20 playing against their 20. Whatever is going on around you shouldn’t be your concern.”
BAD BLOOD: There is plenty of bad blood between these teams stemming from their proximity in California and two playoff series the past three years that each included suspensions for excessive hits. It only grew when Kings captain Dustin Brown sidelined San Jose’s Tomas Hertl with a knee-on-knee hit in December that sidelined the rookie for more than three months. Hertl is looking for payback by eliminating the Kings.
“It’s personal,” Hertl said. “It’s L.A.”
LINE COMBINATIONS: An injury to Marty Havlat and Raffi Torres’ suspension forced the Sharks to use Joe Pavelski as a top six wing in last year’s series, sapping the team of forward depth as they got no goals from their bottom two lines. Pavelski spent most of the stretch run in that role this year on a line with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns, but the Sharks are at their best when Pavelski plays third-line center, creating major mismatches for the opposition. With Hertl healthy, the Sharks could move Pavelski back down and reunite Hertl with Burns and Thornton.
GABORIK’S GOALS: The deadline acquisition of Marian Gaborik provided a needed spark for Los Angeles’ offense. Gaborik had five goals and 11 assists in 19 games as he formed an effective duo with Anze Kopitar. That production helped the Kings go from 27th in the league in goal-scoring before the deal to 14th after the trade.
“I think one thing that stands out is everyone knew him as a goal scorer and how fast he is, but his playmaking ability is really good,” Brown said.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Sharks were the best team at staying out of the penalty box this season, facing a league-low 219 short-handed chances. The Kings were on the other end of that spectrum, going short-handed 296 times, more than all but two other teams. If the Sharks get more power-play chances, they will need to convert. They scored four power-play goals in their three playoff wins against Los Angeles last year but went 0-for-12 in the four losses.