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HELENE ELLIOTT

Kings are leveling playing field in playoff series against Sharks

On paper, San Jose has the advantage at center, but it hasn't carried over onto the ice. With a makeshift center corps, the Kings have turned an apparent weakness into a shared strength.

April 18, 2011|Helene Elliott
  • Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell tries to slow down Sharks center Patrick Marleau during Game 2 of their playoff series on Saturday at HP Pavilion in San Jose.
Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell tries to slow down Sharks center Patrick… (Thearon W. Henderson / Getty…)

Center was the prime area in which the second-seeded San Jose Sharks figured to have a significant edge over the seventh-seeded Kings in their first-round playoff series.

Even with Joe Thornton moved to the wing late in the season amid suspicions he had a hand injury, San Jose had a potent punch up the middle with Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. Centering their fourth line is gritty Scott Nichol, who had a team-leading 59.4% faceoff percentage. Marleau led the Sharks in goals (37) and points (73). Behind him in scoring were Thornton (70 points) and Pavelski (66).

After the Kings lost leading scorer Anze Kopitar to ankle surgery, their highest-scoring center was Jarret Stoll, with 20 goals and 43 points — and they had to get by without Stoll in Game 2 after the NHL suspended him for hitting San Jose defenseman Ian White from behind in the series opener.

Of the four centers in the Kings lineup Saturday, Michal Handzus had the highest regular-season production with a modest 12 goals and 30 points. Oscar Moller played only because an executive-level snafu prevented the Kings from getting John Zeiler out of the American Hockey League and through re-entry waivers in time.

But the advantage the Sharks had on paper hasn't carried over onto the ice.

Couture and Pavelski each scored goals in San Jose's overtime triumph in the opener, but the Kings' makeshift center corps outdid their Sharks counterparts in Game 2 with a dedicated defensive game and assists from Handzus and Brad Richardson. Not only did the Kings make do without Stoll — who will return Tuesday when the series shifts to Staples Center — they made a success of it with a 4-0 victory that tied the series at one game each.

"I think we've done a pretty good job. Obviously we have our top centerman out in Kopi, but in the last game we all stepped up and contributed with Stollie being out of the lineup," Richardson said after the Kings practiced Monday in El Segundo.

"We know they're good players, but there's also things we know we can do to get under their skin or get at their weaknesses. Everyone has a weakness in their game, and we've looked at stuff and we're trying to exploit that.

"We're trying to play as a group of four centermen and trying to work the guy we're against."

Although Thornton's 6-foot-4, 235-pound frame has earned him the nickname "Jumbo Joe," his numbers are microscopic: four shots, no points and a minus-2 defensive rating. Marleau, also scoreless and with four shots, is minus-1. Nichol has no points and is even defensively.

Thornton took 16 faceoffs to nine for Marleau in Game 2 so Thornton might see more time at center Tuesday. But if his early lack of production happens to awaken the ghosts of his and the Sharks' past playoff stumbles, well, the Kings wouldn't mind.

"On the checking part of the game our center icemen have done a very good job," Kings Coach Terry Murray said. "You're not going to eliminate the opportunities that Thornton in particular is going to create because he's such a powerful and top-end player.

"But if you keep proper body positioning on him, try to stay over top of him, limit his speed, his time of possession and limit the plays he's trying to make with a good home-plate attitude, then you're going to give yourself an opportunity to get the job done."

Trevor Lewis, who moved up from the fourth line to the second between Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams on Saturday in Stoll's absence, said restricting the time and maneuvering space of San Jose's centers is the key for the Kings.

"You've got to be really hard on them and finish every chance you get against them so they don't think they have all that ice to make the plays that they're capable of," said Lewis, who will return to the fourth line Tuesday and bump Moller out of the lineup.

"That's the big thing for us — the checking side of it and making sure that we finish those guys."

This series is far from finished, but the Kings have so far turned an apparent weakness into a shared strength. They're giving themselves more of a chance on the ice than they seemed to have on paper.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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