For the San Jose Sharks, it may seem the road trip ended over the weekend with a 3-1-0 record against the Eastern Conference. In reality, it ends against the Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Kings Wednesday, October 30.
After two games in different cities starting 22 hours apart, they flew home and used their own practice facility before flying to Southern California. This will be the teams’ first meeting since San Jose’s Western Conference semifinals loss to Los Angeles last Memorial Day weekend.
Each of the long-time rivals has had the upper-hand in this series. In the first decade-plus of the franchise, the Sharks faced an established team. The Kings were a Western Conference champion with Wayne Gretzky and a consistent Stanley Cup playoff team after that.
Things started to turn around a decade ago when Doug Wilson took over for Dean Lombardi as general manager. The Sharks immediately won a Pacific Division title, earned their first-ever trip to the Western Conference finals and were two wins away from the Stanley Cup finals.
Over the next seven years, San Jose won four more Pacific Division titles, made the playoffs every season and made two more Western Conference finals appearances. Los Angeles struggled to finally make a return trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs at the end of that stretch and were eliminated by their Northern California rivals in six first-round games when they did get there.
That seemed expected. The Sharks continued to hold the head-to-head edge in the rivalry even to the next spring, winning both games of the home-and-home series that ended both teams’ 2011-12 seasons to finish ahead of them in the Pacific Division standings. The general manager and coach they had fired years earlier were now both employed by the Kings.
This shows how quickly a rivalry can turn in the NHL. Los Angeles proceeded to have a Stanley Cup playoff run for the ages and capture the title. San Jose is now the last remaining California team without one, and fell to their rivals in seven games during the 2013 Western Conference semifinals.
A win Wednesday will not erase that, but it may be the first step in making sure the Sharks get their turn. As well as they play at home, their goal of a Stanley Cup would be greatly helped by winning a Pacific Division title. No matter how far ahead they are this early in the standings, they know the Kings are the top challenge to earning that top seed for the first two rounds.
One look at the photo list comparing personnel tells why they are both contenders and why the Kings will win this game, 2-1 in overtime.
While it is possible Martin Havlat will already return to the San Jose Sharks for Wednesday’s game, he will be even more rusty and winded after over five months away from the game. He also does not replace Brent Burns (not expected to play), nor could cover for the losses of Raffi Torres, Adam Burish and maybe even Matt Nieto.
His addition and the emergence of Tomas Hertl has helped them absorb all the other losses from their Western Conference semifinals roster, but the Los Angeles Kings started the season with a more-established forward corps and it is not as banged up.
Even if Dan Boyle does play for the San Jose Sharks, he is not likely to have his usual stamina or rhythm. Even if he was 100 percent, he is not Drew Doughty on either end of the ice. Even after losing Rob Scuderi, the Los Angeles Kings have more depth behind him, too.
Willie Mitchell has returned, Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin are continuing to improve on their already-high talent, and Robyn Regehr and Alec Martinez are both good third-pair defensemen. The Sharks counter well with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brad Stuart, Justin Braun and Matt Irwin. Scott Hannan and Jason Demers give them two more good defensemen to cover the last spot (if Boyle plays) or two (if not), but at their best they are not quite as good.
Since both starting goalies are expected to be in net Wednesday, there is not much point in examining two backups that both have small sample sizes for their careers. Both the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks have elite net-minders.
Jonathan Quick is probably the best goalie in the world. He won a Stanley Cup and was a Vezina Trophy finalist just like Antti Niemi, but added a Conn Smythe. Even though all of those were earned in one season, he won the battle between the two goalies in the 2013 Western Conference semifinals.
However, Niemi is playing better right now. Coming off his first rest of the season, he has two shutouts in his last three games that lowered his goals against average to 1.53 and raised his save percentage to .933. Quick is a pedestrian 2.53 and .907, respectively.
Darryl Sutter is a fantastic coach, and more accomplished than Todd McLellan. The Los Angeles Kings have a very good support staff for him with former head coach John Stevens, Bill Ranford as goalie coach and assistant coach Davis Payne.
That might give them a slight edge over the San Jose Sharks, but if so it is negligible: Larry Robinson is the best assistant in the business, Wayne Thomas the best goalie coach in the world, Jim Johnson an excellent defensive assistant and Jay Woodcroft among the best video coaches out there.