GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 12:  Joe Pavelski #8 of the San Jose Sharks awaits a face off during the second period of the NHL game against the Phoenix Coyotes at
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 12: Joe Pavelski #8 of the San Jose Sharks awaits a face off during the second period of the NHL game against the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena on April 12, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) ( Christian Petersen )

SAN JOSE -- This time the Sharks have the home ice advantage that was so crucial last year in their bruising playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings, when the visiting team lost every night, including Game 7 at the Staples Center.

That should help.

Yet even as San Jose gains traction once again as a fashionable pick for the Stanley Cup finals, the basic question remains: Have the Sharks improved enough to knock off their biggest rival?

The Sharks do have Tomas Hertl back in the lineup to bolster their chances while he seeks personal revenge against the Kings. Raffi Torres may be there as well -- though that it will be a game-day decision Thursday indicates that he's not 100 percent. But those are reasons for the Sharks to be optimistic.

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 12:  Goaltender Antti Niemi #31 of the San Jose Sharks prepares to make a save against the Phoenix Coyotes during the second period of
GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 12: Goaltender Antti Niemi #31 of the San Jose Sharks prepares to make a save against the Phoenix Coyotes during the second period of the NHL game at Jobing.com Arena on April 12, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) ( Christian Petersen )

Still, in some ways San Jose does resemble the same team it was a year ago, with two highly skilled top lines that provide the bulk of the offense, two bottom lines that need to produce more, and a solid, reliable defensive corps.

The one difference from last season, however, is a playoff-proven goalie at the top of his game.

Last year, Antti Niemi finished third in the voting for the Vezina Trophy. He led the league in wins. His .924 save percentage was seventh-best and his 2.16 goals against average was eighth-best among netminders who played more than half their team's games.

This year, he has been less consistent. The victory total remained high as Niemi's 39 wins tied for second in the NHL. But his other stats dropped off -- a .913 save percentage that ranked 12th and a 2.39 goals against average that placed him 19th.

In addition, several of his recent efforts have been subpar as Niemi went 2-3 over his past five games, getting yanked once. His poorest performance during that stretch was an .842 save percentage in a 5-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks; in his favor, his best was a .963 save percentage in a 2-1 victory over Los Angeles.

General manager Doug Wilson brushed off the suggestion of netminding concerns.

"Our goaltending is top 5 in the league," Wilson said of Niemi and backup Alex Stalock, who combined for the fifth best goals against average of 2.31.

But what about some of Niemi's recent performances? Is he at the top of his game?

"Depends what you're asking. Are you asking one game? Twenty games? Thirty games?" Wilson said. "We look at a season. When we build this team, it's 'what are people capable of.' "

Stalock had the better statistics this season and his more aggressive style of play could be well-suited to help offset the Kings aggressive forecheck. But he lacks playoff experience while Niemi won the Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. Even though coach Todd McLellan has kept his choice of Game 1 starter to himself, it's hard to imagine it not being Niemi.

San Jose's goaltending likely needs to be strong because no NHL team is tougher to score on than the Kings. With Jonathan Quick getting the bulk of the work, Los Angeles gave up only 174 goals this season, fewest in the NHL.

What McLellan wants to see on offense is more scoring balance.

The Sharks do have the NHL's third-best goal scorer in Joe Pavelski with 41 and its second-best playmaker in Joe Thornton with 65 assists as well as 11 goals. Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Brent Burns all made serious contributions to the 249 goals San Jose racked up -- 43 more than the Kings.

Two other Shark forwards reached double-figures in goals, but even they cooled off toward the end of the season. Tommy Wingels had a career-best 16, but only one in his past 15 games. Rookie Matt Nieto was held without a point in his past seven after four goals and five assists in his previous 10.

Tyler Kennedy had a career-low four goals after being acquired last summer from the Pittsburgh Penguins, and only one assist in his past 14 games. James Sheppard played well at third line center but was blanked in his past six games after two goals and three assists in the six before that.

One Western Conference scout said the Sharks should not be worried about Niemi, but he did point to their third and fourth lines as weak spots.

"It was pretty easy to look out there and see there was nothing coming from the bottom two lines," he said. "That makes it harder on everybody."

McLellan does have an obvious move he can make to improve the bottom two lines by playing Hertl alongside Thornton and Burns, then plugging in Pavelski as a third-line center. And the Sharks coach did just that at practice Tuesday.

But that's taking a chance, removing a 41-goal scorer off the top line and counting on a 20-year-old rookie to handle the playoff grind after playing only two games since Dec. 19.

Players don't put much stock in year-to-year comparisons. With them, the playoffs begin with a clean slate.

"You start fresh once the playoffs come," Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. "The third and fourth line has the same points as the first line going into the first game."

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