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April 16, 2014 | 9:33am ET


California Rubber-Match
 The San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings meet in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.

LOS ANGELES, CA -- While Southern California fans will have to wait at least one playoff round to get their dream match of the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks, the first round series with the San Jose Sharks stands to have as much drama as the unfulfilled meeting.

The Kings and Sharks have built a strong rivalry over the past four seasons, the natural Northern vs. Southern California competitiveness set the stage and the intensity progressively grew with the images created in the prior two playoffs series.

Both were long, grueling series -- in 2011 the Kings were prohibitive underdogs due to losing Anze Kopitar to a season-ending broken leg late in the regular season. The series had defining moments: the Kings' Game 2 victory at the Shark Tank that raised hopes of a massive upset, the Sharks rally from a four goal deficit to win Game 3 in overtime and culminating with Joe Thornton's raucous celebration after potting the series winning goal on Staples Center ice.

Last season just added to the drama, a series that went to the seven-game limit with the home team holding serve every game. Defense was the watchword in the Kings ultimate triumph, scoring only 14 goals in the series and the memory of a sprawling Jonathan Quick denying Joe Pavelski in the waning moments of Game 7 serving as the exclamation point.
 

The 2014 version of the rivalry stands to be the same -- two 100-point teams whose style is as different as the weather in each region.

The Sharks are clearly the better offensive team while the Kings will rely upon their tried-and-true formula of tight checking and excellent goaltending (Quick captured the Jennings Trophy for allowing the least amount of goals) to power them through to a divisional final matchup against the winner between the Ducks and Dallas Stars.

They are evenly matched in puck-possession advanced stats as well, the Kings finished first in both Corsi and Fenwick, while the Sharks ranked third in Fenwick and fifth in Corsi.

Three factors will determine who escapes the California rubber match, a series that should go a minimum of six games and will add more memories with another chapter in the rivalry:

1. Banging Around -- The outcome of the series may rest on the shoulder(s) of Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. The last regular season meeting between saw Doughty suffer an injury on what appeared to be an inconsequential hit on Sharks winger Tyler Kennedy. Doughty departed the game soon thereafter and hasnít return to game competition since.

With the Kings playing inconsequential games down the stretch and Doughty saying heís been ready for the past week (we say him lugging a box out of Staples Center Saturday night and itís doubtful control freak Darryl Sutter would allow it if he wasnít 100%), weíll assume heís close to full strength. The true test will come when heís shoulder-to-shoulder with Brent Burns, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

The Sharks received a boost when rookie winger Tomas Hertl returned to the lineup in the last days of the season. Hertl was on track for a Calder Trophy nomination when a collision with Kings winger Dustin Brown ended those hopes and intensified the hatred between the teamís fan bases. Hertl hasnít registered a point in the two games after his 45 game absence so itís unfair to say he will return to form for the first round but it gives the Kings another skill forward they must defend.

Like Doughy, the key to this series may come down to the effectiveness another resident of London, Ontario and one of Drew's best buds. Logan Couture missed 16 games this season due to a hand injury that robbed him of establishing a career-high in points this season. He scored the game-winning overtime power play goal in Game 3 against Los Angeles last season after returning from an in-game injury and will lead a dangerous second line. Like Doughty, his hand still may be an issue as there was a large ice bag on it after the Sharks loss to Anaheim last week.

2. The Offense Rests -- Kings GM Dean Lombardi knows his team can't get away with scoring 14 goals in a series, in that respect it was an anomaly. He addressed the need for scoring by acquiring winger Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline. Gaborik has developed good chemistry with Anze Kopitar, he's had a significant impact on Kopitar's great stretch run, but only potted four goals in 19 games playing on left wing and none of the goals came against a playoff qualifier. Acquired to score in the post-season, Gaborik must finish in this series to escape this round and raise his hopes of signing a contract extension. He must play a 200 foot game and be able to defend against a steady diet of Brent Burns, a likely matchup in the games at the Shark Tank.

Patrick Marleau had another productive season for the Sharks, his 33 goals placed him in the top 15 NHL goal scorers, but he will be placed under the microscope again when he skates from out of the Shark mouth for Game 83. A quiet Marleau in this series will make it impossible for the both himself and his team to shake off the legacy of being good enough to lose. McLellan has constructed an effective third line this season with James Sheppard anchoring the pivot and any production from their bottom six will go a long way towards a San Jose triumph.

3. I'm not Pro or Antti -- If the other factors equalize, the 2014 playoff destiny of these two teams will come down to the play between the pipes. Quick has showed well since missing 24 games with a groin injury and there's no reason to think he won't be at the top of his game.

The certainty Kings coach Darryl Sutter has in net isn't matched by his counterpart, Todd McLellan. In the game that essentially decided the Pacific Division title, Antti Niemi was horrible, yielding three soft goals that gave McLellan no choice but to pull him in favor of tankmate Alex Stalock. "I felt the team's shoulders slump on the bench after the third goal," McLellan conveyed.

When asked if Niemi was his guy for Game 1, McLellan calmly and quickly responded, "He's one of my guys for Game 1." Ouch.

Niemi's subpar play in the season's final weeks was a major factor in the Sharks having lost the crown to the Ducks. Stalock posted a sub-2.00 GAA, a save percentage of .932 and acquitted himself well in his only appearance against the Kings this season, a 1-0 loss in Los Angeles on January 27. Asking either goaltender to go save for save with Quick is a large task, but is a must-have given how closely matched these rivals are.

Prediction: The first time around it was Sharks in 6, Round 2 was Kings in 7. The third chapter shall be written, Kings in 6.
 


NHL AWARDS

As a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, I have the honor and responsibility to cast a ballot for the NHL Awards, All Star and All Rookie teams. This is the fourth time I've been a designee and I relish the opportunity with as much gusto as I did the first time around. To be an influencer of hockey history is both humbling and affirming of the work I do and I approach the task with the proper diligence.

The PHWA has been criticized in past voting seasons over circumstances around the voting body -- a regrettable boycott of the votes by some members surrounding credential status of a single member with an agenda and the miscasting of votes by position for Alexander Ovechkin that saw him named as an All Star for both wing positions.

Those occurrences drew criticism that was fair and while they can't be undone, the PHWA realizes that steps needed to be taken to reinforce the legitimacy of the group as a voting body.

One of the steps we've taken is the recommendation of making our votes public as to give visibility to the process. While not mandatory step, I've always made my vote public via Twitter. For me, it's not about accountability, as I make my votes public after the official ballot is cast but about disclosure given the prior circumstances, I have no problem with transparency and the criticism that goes along with my opinion.

This year's ballot has no surprises, so I will allow the ballot to speak for itself:

HART
1. Sidney Crosby -- Pittsburgh Penguins
2. Ryan Getzlaf -- Anaheim Ducks
3. Seymon Varlamov -- Colorado Avalanche
4. Claude Giroux -- Philadelphia Flyers
5. Tyler Seguin -- Dallas Stars

CALDER
1. Nathan MacKinnon -- Colorado Avalanche
2. Ondrej Palat -- Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Torey Krug -- Boston Bruins
4. Tyler Johnson -- Tampa Bay Lightning
5. Valeri Nichuskin -- Dallas Stars

NORRIS
1. Duncan Keith -- Chicago Blackhawks
2. Alex Pietrangelo -- St. Louis Blues
3. Zdeno Chara -- Boston Bruins
4. Ryan Suter -- Minnesota Wild
5. Shea Weber -- Nashville Predators

SELKE
1. Anze Kopitar -- Los Angeles Kings
2. Patrice Bergeron -- Boston Bruins
3. Jonathan Toews -- Chicago Blackhawks
4. David Backes -- St. Louis Blues
5. Marian Hossa -- Chicago Blackhawks

LADY BYNG
1. Ryan O'Reilly -- Colorado Avalanche
2. Teemu Selanne -- Anaheim Ducks
3. Martin St. Louis --New York Rangers
4. Patrick Marleau -- San Jose Sharks
5. Jason Pominville -- Minnesota Wild

ALL STAR TEAM

Center
1. Sidney Crosby -- Pittsburgh Penguins
2. Ryan Getzlaf -- Anaheim Ducks
3. Claude Giroux -- Philadelphia Flyers

Right Wing
1. Corey Perry -- Anaheim Ducks
2. Phil Kessel -- Toronto Maple Leafs
3. Alex Ovechkin -- Washington Capitals

Left Wing
1. Joe Pavelski -- San Jose Sharks
2. Patrick Sharp -- Chicago Blackhawks
3. Jamie Benn -- Dallas Stars

Defenseman
1. Duncan Keith -- Chicago Blackhawks
2. Alex Pietrangelo -- St. Louis Blues
3. Shea Weber -- Nashville Predators
4. Zdeno Chara -- Boston Bruins
5. Brent Seabrook -- Chicago Blackhawks
6. Drew Doughty -- Los Angeles Kings

Goaltender
1. Seymon Varlamov -- Colorado Avalanche
2. Tuukka Rask -- Boston Bruins
3. Ben Bishop -- Tampa Bay Lightning

ALL ROOKIE TEAM

Forwards
1. Nathan MacKinnon -- Colorado Avalanche
2. Ondrej Palat -- Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Tyler Johnson -- Tampa Bay Lightning

Defenseman
1. Torey Krug -- Boston Bruins
2. Hampus Lindholm -- Anaheim Ducks

Goalie
1. Frederik Andersen -- Anaheim Ducks

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.

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