One of the facets making Kings-Sharks such a compelling series is that the two teams boast some of the strongest center depth in the National Hockey League.
The assignments are always in flux – and Los Angeles has had a tendency towards rolling lines instead of favoring particular match-ups – but in general, the Anze Kopitar line often sees the ice against the Patrick Marleau-Logan Couture line, and the Mike Richards-Jeff Carter line often sees the ice against the Joe Thornton-Brent Burns line.
This is always subject to change based on multiple factors, such as whether Joe Pavelski lines up as a center, and whether Mike Richards will, in fact, skate primarily with Jeff Carter during five-on-five play.
Though Jarret Stoll hasn’t been one of the centers to consistently draw the Thornton assignment during recent even strength play, he’s aware of the challenges.
“I think with any good player in this league, you want to eliminate time and space, make it hard on him, get it in their mind a little bit that every little inch is going to be contested, and it’s going to be a hard, tough night,” Stoll said. “If you don’t do those kind of things, then obviously other players get confidence and start making plays. With Joe, especially, if you give him that time and space, he can make a great play, a great pass, and that’s not what we’re looking to do.”
It’s similar to what Richards said about defending Thornton earlier in the season.
“Well, Joe’s a good passer and sees the ice well,” Richards said on October 30. “I guess if you try to take away his space…probably the biggest thing is not giving him time to make those plays. I know playing with him, he makes some of the passes that you don’t expect him to make. When you have a guy like that, I think if you just take away his time, he doesn’t have the space to see those plays develop.”
In the eyes of a defenseman, the 6-foot-4, 225 pound center creates certain matchup headaches.
“He’s a good player,” Drew Doughty said. “He’s good at using his body. [He’ll] put his butt into you and just protect the puck a lot of times, and he’s probably one of the best passers in the whole league. We’ve kind of developed a little bit of a battle every game ever since we fought…So I enjoy playing against him. I enjoy playing against a guy who’s going to give it back to me. It’s going to be a battle this series again, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Similar things can be said about Anze Kopitar, one of the best players in the National Hockey League in using his size and strength to protect the puck and perhaps the most effective two-way center in the game today. He’s also a major factor in Los Angeles’ possession game, which will look to hold the advantage against another quality possession team and limit the frequency in which Thornton is able to search for teammates and make plays.
Of course, there’s also Joe Pavelski, who leads the club with 39 goals and 77 points, as well as triggerman and Logan Couture, who scored 18 of his 22 goals at even strength.
“I don’t want to talk too much about their team,” Stoll said. “Their team is their team, and they can talk about their team. But we feel we have a pretty darn good team here, built for the playoffs, know what it takes, know how much we can each push ourselves in certain situations when maybe we think there’s not much left in the tank, but there is, and we can get that out of everybody. It’s going to take everybody. It’s never easy, that’s for sure. Especially this year in the Western Conference there are a lot of good teams and a lot of heavy teams, so it’s going to be exciting.”
Further intensifying the centers’ battles? These are two of the premier faceoff teams in the NHL. Los Angeles and San Jose enter the weekend tied for first in the league with the Nashville Predators with a 52.8% faceoff percentage. Both teams have been top five faceoff teams for the last three seasons, while San Jose has finished either first or second in the league in faceoff percentage since 2008-09.
“They play hard,” Stoll said. “They play gritty, but we feel that with our team, we’re a pretty gritty team, too. I think that our attitude here in the next couple weeks, it’s about us in here.”
Jarret Stoll, on any home ice advantages:
I don’t take much into the home ice kind of thing. San Jose might say that it’s an advantage for them, but we’re a good road team. We’ve won on the road. We’ve proven that. We’re not going to talk about two years ago, but this year we feel we’re a pretty good road team, and we’ve gone into some tough buildings and won, played well in some tough buildings, and we have that confidence to do that again.
Stoll, on whether there’s a significant home ice advantage in hockey:
No, I don’t think so. We have enough depth…We can play four lines. I think the one thing with our team – I’m sure Darryl will say it too – he’s comfortable throwing out anybody against anybody. Anybody on our team can play against Joe Thornton, or Couture, or Pavelski, or whatever. We’re not too worried about that. We’re looking forward to an exciting series and to play well.
Drew Doughty, on facing a team in the playoffs that they’re very familiar with:
It’s just going to come down to the team that’s better prepared and the team that’s playing better. We’ve met these guys a few times in the playoffs the last few years, and they’ve been great series, so I expect another good one.
Doughty, on the home team finding success in the head-to-head series:
Yeah, they’re a different team at home than they are on the road. They’re very good at home and tough to beat in that building. They come out in those first 10 minutes so hard. It’s tough to get up a goal early. We know what we have to do. We know we have to steal at least one game in their building in order to win this series. We’re going to go into Game 1 looking to win that one and take it from there.
Previously in the Kings-Sharks playoff preview series:
The home ice factor