San Jose’s 2012-13 playoff elimination at the hands of the Kings sparked a disagreement between me and Damon Bruce. In case you weren’t around for it, Bruce’s Blackhawks advanced to the Western Conference Finals to face (and eventually knock out) the Los Angeles Kings, who had just squeaked out a Game 7 victory over the Sharks in the Semifinals. He was feeling good about his hockey team, and being that San Jose has been perceived as a soft, sensitive-asophogas’d squad for the better part of, oh, their entire existence, Bruce took it upon himself to explain to Sharks fans that the difference between Stanley Cup winners and perpetual playoff bridesmaids is heart and toughness. I wrote a post about it, called it trolling at the time, and while he was cordial enough to let us hash it out in his studio, I’m still pretty certain (in fact, lately, I’m even more certain) it was trolling.
So where am I going with this? It was hard to watch the Sharks get manhandled by the Kings to the tune of a 4-1 drubbing tonight without thinking that Mr. Bruce just might be right (ABOUT THE SHARKS, not that other thing).
The trouble started when Dustin Brown went out of his way to hit Tomas Hertl knee-to-knee in a back-and-forth but otherwise uneventful first period. Hertl went limping into the dressing room never to return, and although Brown got sent to the showers on a game misconduct, there was no response to the hit. Nor was there a response to any of the 33 hard, and sometimes quite questionable, hits that the Kings threw on the Sharks. See, Los Angeles has made a habit of strong-arming San Jose whenever the Sharks step into the Staples Center, a place in which they haven’t won a game in regulation since April 23, 2011. I’m beginning to see a pattern.
Hockey isn’t all about TOUGHNESS AND GRIT AND 60 MINUTES OF IN YOUR FACE KNUCKLE SANDWICHES, no matter how much Bruce would like you to believe it is. But when the finesse game isn’t working against a backup goalie in Martin Jones that’s taken the NHL world by storm with three shutouts in his first six games, you’re getting out-forechecked, out-backchecked and out-hustled all night long and the puck isn’t bouncing the way you’d like it to, perhaps a little bite in your game is just what the doctor ordered.
Instead, the Sharks played the Kings Thursday night like they’ve been playing the Kings for two years now. They played like it was a game of four square on the playground and the yard duties were nowhere to be found when things got too rough for their liking.
Granted, the Sharks are missing Raffi Torres and Adam Burish, but let’s be honest: Torres is more of a nerve-wracking presence on the ice than he is one to drop the gloves in the name of camaraderie and heroism. And as far as Burish goes? His game with the Sharks has been about as tough as Martin Havlat’s. No one on Joe Pavelski’s line responded when he got crosschecked into the boards from behind, and while they aren’t the grittiest dudes on the team, no one on the Sharks’ what-exactly-is-it-that-you-do-here fourth line did either.
The Kings threw their bodies around loose and fancy-free all night long, and they did it because they could. The Sharks let them.
Patrick Marleau managed to notch a late goal on his 1,200th career game, ensuring San Jose wouldn’t be shutout on a 32-shot effort. Luckily, this is the last time the Sharks will have to head to Los Angeles during the 2013-14 regular season … but if we’ve learned anything about this rivalry, it’s that San Jose isn’t done down there. Not yet. The chances are good they’ll be back for a playoff round, and the way they’re playing right now, they won’t have home ice advantage when they return.
I’ve covered how even these teams are ad nauseum, and though the box score seems to read like San Jose was actually the better team Thursday, the results clearly demonstrate otherwise. The shots were even, but then San Jose earned more power plays, outhit the Kings, won more face-offs and blocked more shots. But the Kings muscled the Sharks completely out of their game, only to take full advantage of the opportunities they earned and deliver a convincing beat down in front of their Cartman-loving fans.
It’s a long 82-game season and San Jose is right in the middle of a lull. They’ll snap out of it and jump right back into the playoff conversation that they’re slowly-but-surely slipping their way out of soon enough. But will the Sharks get back in it by finessing their way past the worst teams in the West and continuing to struggling against the elite teams, or will they find a way to finally start throwing their weight around?