EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Although Joe Thornton and Dustin Brown might not agree on much else over the next two weeks, both captains believe hockey has never been bigger or better in California, from the thriving youth game all the way to their state’s three winning NHL clubs.
The San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings are eager to highlight this renaissance in their second-round playoff series. It’s the fourth post-season meeting between Golden State teams, but the first beyond the opening round.
Judging by the rivals’ two stacked rosters and the series’ high stakes, everything is in place for a California classic.
“It’s pretty cool,” Thornton said Monday before the Sharks’ 45-minute flight south. “Hockey is big out here now. You have a lot of youngsters playing, a lot of older people, too. Hockey is thriving out here in the West.”
Starting in the series opener Tuesday night at Staples Center, the defence-first Kings and the skill-laden Sharks will showcase their contrasting styles in pursuit of the same goal: Being the California club in the Western Conference finals for the eighth time in 10 years.
Local rivalries and short travel times are taken for granted in the Eastern Conference, but they’re special circumstances in the West. Neither team wants to waste the advantages of brief flights and their large fan contingents in both arenas.
“I think it’s a great thing for California to get these two teams in this situation,” Brown said at the Kings’ training complex. “It’s the perfect time for it because of how well hockey is doing. We know what’s at stake after what we did last year, and they know it as well.”
The Kings nearly ended up with a matchup even closer to home against the Anaheim Ducks, but their local rivals were eliminated Sunday night by Detroit, scuttling the Kings’ hopes of travelling by bus to the first post-season Freeway Faceoff. They’ve still got a familiar local foe—and for the first time in 21 years, Los Angeles gets to start a post-season series at home.
The Kings have won five straight playoff series as the lower-seeded team over the past two seasons, setting an NHL record. Instead, they hope to continue their dominant run at Staples Center, where they’ve won 10 straight since March—including a 3-2 win in the regular season finale on April 27, securing the fifth seed by finishing two points ahead of San Jose.
“We’re getting into that groove,” Los Angeles centre Anze Kopitar said. “We had a slow start, but the last few games are a good indication of what we can do. We’re familiar with them from so many years. We know what they bring and what they can do, and they know what we want to do, so I think it should be a fun series to see who can do it better.”
Los Angeles is amply wary of the Sharks, who are just one series away from their third Western Conference finals appearance in four years. Both teams won four straight to close out their first-round series, although San Jose swept Vancouver while Los Angeles dropped its first two games before rolling through hard-nosed St. Louis.
“I don’t know if it will be as physical,” Kings defenceman Drew Doughty said of the upcoming series. “They have some guys that will be physical, but I don’t think they have as many guys that will work as hard as guys that were on St. Louis. At the same time, I think this team has a lot more skill and a lot more high-profile players, so it will be just as tough to win this series, too.”
Doughty and Logan Couture are probably done texting each other for the month. The childhood buddies and longtime teammates usually don’t talk about their teams’ rivalry, but Couture admires the Kings’ 16-4 roll through the last post-season—something the Sharks have never experienced in nine straight trips to the playoffs.
“The hottest team wins the Stanley Cup at playoff time, that’s the way it is every single year,” Couture said. “They showed it. It was a prime example last year. They played unbelievable hockey. They really tore through every other team. It’s a pretty incredible thing to do.”
San Jose and Los Angeles met in the playoffs for the first time two years ago, and the Sharks advanced in six hard-nosed games on the way to their second straight conference finals—but the Kings were still coached back then by Terry Murray, who was replaced in December 2011 by Darryl Sutter, the longtime Sharks coach. Patrick Marleau, Scott Hannan and Brad Stuart all played for Sutter in San Jose.
“They know all of us, and we know all of them, so there won’t be many surprises,” Los Angeles’ Jarret Stoll said. “They’re having a great run. They’re playing the right way, and they’ll be fired up. Maybe they’re buying in a little more, blocking more shots, and that’s why they’re still playing.”
The Sharks’ biggest asset might be goalie Antti Niemi. The Stanley Cup winner has elevated his formidable game this season, posting a league-best 24 victories with a career-low 2.16 goals-against average as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
But this series features two Cup-winning goalies, and Jonathan Quick has a Conn Smythe Trophy to go with it. Quick was in his usually formidable post-season form against St. Louis, allowing just 10 goals on 177 shots with the same low-to-the-ice, athletic style that led the Kings to a title.
No matter which team survives this matchup, players and coaches are confident local hockey will get another boost from the clubs’ combined success.
“I think it’s an incredible thing for the state of California,” said Sharks coach Todd McLellan, whose sons participated in youth hockey programs in the South Bay.
“(The) extreme growth and passion that this community has, and I’m sure it’s the same down South, that’s a result of the three teams having some success—playing late, becoming young hockey players’ heroes and contributing to the community,” McLellan added. “So if we can continue that trend—obviously we will, because one of these two teams is going to go on—I think it’s a great thing for the state.”
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in San Jose contributed to this report.