SAN JOSE – It was the backbone of the Los Angeles Kings’ championship run last season, and may be the single biggest reason the Sharks are where they are right now. And, it could very well determine which of California’s two remaining playoff teams advances to the Western Conference finals.
The penalty kill.
The Sharks and Kings each allowed just two power play goals against in the first round, and will look to continue that success against one another when their conference semifinal series begins at Staples Center on Tuesday night.
“We’ve got to try and win that side of things,” Joe Pavelski said.
Last season, the Sharks' biggest weakness was their inability to keep the puck out of their own net while shorthanded. They finished the regular season ranked 29th out of 30 teams (76.9 percent), and that lack of success carried over into the playoffs.
There, the St. Louis Blues scored six times in 18 chances in coasting past the Sharks in the first round.
Enter assistant coaches Larry Robinson and Jim Johnson in the offseason, and with them, a brand new philosophy. San Jose finished sixth in the regular season with a much-improved 85.0 percent penalty kill rate.
“We’re more aggressive this year,” Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. “Guys are blocking more shots, we’re committed to sticks in the lane, bodies in the lane. Just being more aggressive, you make the other team make the perfect play in order to score.”
While the Sharks' power play was an impressive 7-for-24 against the Canucks, scoring a handful of important goals, it’s commonly said in hockey that a good penalty kill is more important than a consistent power play.
That sentiment rings true, according to Vlasic.
“You see [what happens] if your penalty kill is not as sharp as you want it to be. We weren’t as sharp last year, and Vancouver was probably not as sharp as they wanted to be this year. You can go a whole playoffs without scoring power play goals, but if your penalty kill shuts everybody down, you have a chance to win every game.”
The 2012 Kings are a prime example.
During their impressive 16-4 postseason run that resulted in the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup, Los Angeles allowed just six power play goals against in 20 games. They scored five shorthanded goals, too, meaning they were a remarkable a -1 while shorthanded during their run.
That made up for Los Angeles’ power play, which clicked at just 12.8 percent in the 2012 playoffs, well below the league average.
In the first round this year, the Kings killed off 15 of 17 Blues power plays in their six-game series.
What makes them so successful? The same reasons the Sharks turned it around in that department this season.
“They’re aggressive, and they win a lot of faceoffs with [Jarret] Stoll, [Anze] Kopitar and [Jeff] Carter – they’re all good in the faceoff circle,” said Logan Couture, who had three power play goals against Vancouver. “Their goaltender (Jonathan Quick) is their best penalty killer. Just how aggressive they are in the zone, up ice. We just have to be sharp and make passes back-to-back, and shoot the puck.”
The Kings aren’t likely to be shorthanded as much as the Canucks, either, as Vancouver took several undisciplined and ill-advised minors. Los Angeles was shorthanded 17 times in six games compared with 24 times for Vancouver in four.
Todd McLellan said: “We’re going to face a very good penalty kill, and one that differs in a lot of ways from what Vancouver does. It will be a big challenge of ours when we do get the penalties, and they’re not an overly penalized team. When we do get them, we’re going to have to try and create some momentum and find ways to finish.”