The San Jose Sharks’ highly-anticipated outdoor game against the LA Kings is — wait for it — actually going to count for something.
You know, count for something beyond the pomp and circumstance surrounding NorCal’s first professional hockey game without a roof overhead. Beyond the number of CCR covers that John Fogerty will roll out during the first intermission of the game. Yes, even beyond the time-lapse videos of Levi’s Stadium being transformed from football field to ice rink — with or without the apocalyptic bird getting in the way of the lens.
Saturday’s battle royale actually means something from a hockey standpoint. Take away all the extra stuff, and the tilt between the California rivals comes down to having weight in terms of standings — and whether or not San Jose can properly adjust the issues that have plagued them as of late, and use the platform of the Stadium Series game to get into a winning groove.
Team Teal enters tomorrow’s game with 68 points in the standings, with L.A. lurking just behind them with 66 points and a six-game winning streak. For the first time during this helter-skelter season, the Sharks are flirting with the concept of being out of a playoff spot, including a good 48 hours after falling 5-1 to the Nashville Predators when they were “on the outside looking in,” as just about every other writer has dubbed it. Now, thanks to a confidence-boosting 5-2 victory over the Stars down in Dallas on Thursday, the Sharks are just barely back in the playoff picture and riding the high of a win into Levi’s this weekend.
The defending Stanley Cup champs, on the other hand, are doing that thing where they’ve waited until the most important part of the year to turn up the volume, start winning a ton of games and become a threat in the Pacific Division. The Kings probably won’t look flat like they did when they visited S.J. on Metallica night — they’re going to bring their big boy game and try to do to the Sharks what the Seahawks did to the Niners on Thanksgiving eve — with or without a 50-yard line on which to gobble a turkey dinner.
So, what do the Sharks do? I keep going back to last week’s OT loss to the Capitals when Todd McLellan identified the problem point blank: “We aren’t going to win games giving up four or five goals.”
It’s doesn’t get simpler than that. Sure, San Jose’s defense has struggled all season, but its shown enough of a boost after getting both Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun back from injury to help get that goals-against figure down. Plus, Antti Niemi and Alex Stalock have let in about as many preventable goals as Darryl Sutter has dropped f-bombs on the EPIX Stadium Series special, and whoever is tapped to start between the pipes at Levi’s has to be closer to his A-game than that.
In keeping the Kings from scoring too many points, the Sharks are going to need to find the back of the net themselves, and not get into an early hole like they have so many times over the past couple of months. It might have been nice to notch two empty-netters on top of having a lead at the end of the game with the Stars, but that isn’t something a team can bank on when going up against Los Angeles. The Sharks already fell prey to some gnarly goaltending in Nashville with a vintage performance from Pekka Rinne that held them to one goal, and they know that underestimating Jonathan Quick isn’t smart.
Add all that to the hope that this battle will be another hard-hitter. These two clubs certainly like to kick the snot out of each other, especially on the national stage. The other outdoor games this year have proven engaging — the Blackhawks-Capitals rumble New Years day was as entertaining as they come — and Saturday’s matchup at Levi’s shouldn’t be any different. (And supposedly the ice rink hasn’t melted into a swimming pool yet, so that’s a plus.)
Yes, Saturday night’s Stadium Series game is going to be a special event for the greater Northern California market, but it is also one that the Sharks need to win. If not for the sake of winning the Bay Area’s first outdoor game, for the opportunity to keep playing hockey past the month of April.