By Mary Walsh
Saturday’s NHL Stadium Series game will be more than a spectacle, it will be an important game in terms of playoff standings. As of Wednesday night, the Kings, who were on the verge of being written out of the playoffs, have supplanted the fast-falling Sharks for the last wild card spot. The Sharks have one more game to play before Saturday, but it is clear that these teams both need a win Saturday.
Make no mistake, the first outdoor NHL game to be played in Northern California will be a unique spectacle. Performances from Melissa Etheridge, John Fogerty, Kris Allen and Symphony Silicon Valley are scheduled for the pregame show and intermissions. Those performances will include a special cell phone show that will rely on audience participation. The NHL described it as follows:
During the pre-game show and intermission, fans will be asked to use their mobile device to activate a special section of the Levi’s® Stadium App that will connect everyone’s phone. Once connected, the phones will blanket the stadium with a synchronized, multi-colored visualization of the live musical entertainment on the field. During the first intermission, there will be a special laser light show accompanying Fogerty’s performance.
The pregame show will feature a tribute to California hockey and former Sharks players. The tribute will include over 100 youth hockey players from the Bay Area. The former Sharks expected at the celebration are: Jamie Baker, Murray Craven, Jeff Friesen, Igor Larionov, Rick Lessard, David Maley, Bryan Marchment, Kyle McLaren, Owen Nolan, Tom Pederson, Mike Rathje, Mike Ricci, Steve Shields, Mark Smith, Marco Sturm and Scott Thornton. Additionally, the NHL press release noted that the Sharks are forming their first formal alumni association for their 25th season next year.
The NHL recently announced that tickets to the Levi’s Stadium game are sold out. Of course, tickets are probably still available through resale. Last season, the NHL scheduled six outdoor games, including the Winter Classic in Michigan, and two games in New York. Without saying that six was too many, the NHL scheduled just this one outdoor game and the Winter Classic this season. They have already announced two stadium games and a Winter Classic next season, so perhaps the NHL is experimenting with how many games the market can stand.
The game at Levi’s Stadium will not present the challenges that the Winter Classic in Michigan did. There will be no blinding blizzard, no strong winds to tilt the ice. There may be ice problems if it is too humid, and it will probably be warmer than players are used to working in. Glare has been a problem for some fair weather games but since this will be an evening event, it should be a good showcase for how hockey can work, indoors and out, in warmer climates.
It is a local but unfamiliar setting for the Sharks. The Kings played Anaheim last season in their outdoor game, the Sharks have not done it before. To call it a home game for the Sharks seems a little bit unfair. Odd games like this one, and strong competition like the Kings is exactly why those bad losses to not very strong teams hurt so much earlier in the season. Those games were bound to come back to bite the Sharks, and here they are.
As the Sharks plummet out of the Pacific Division top three, the Kings are making a late climb in the standings. Such behavior is not uncommon for Los Angeles, it has almost become a habit for them to claw their way into the playoffs and then go on a deep run. With two games in hand on the Sharks, a win on Wednesday put the Kings in the Sharks’ wild card position and bump the Sharks out.
The Kings are 6-4-0 in their last ten games and as of Wednesday night are on a six game winning streak. The Kings’ leading goal scorer is Tyler Toffoli (19g), with their points leader Jeff Carter (18g, 45p) right behind him. But they are pretty evenly balanced as Marion Gaborik, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams are tightly packed in the goal-scoring count. The Kings have not been their formidable defensive selves this season and are ranked 10th in the league in goals against. The Sharks, on the other hand, are down at 23rd in that category.
The Sharks are 3-5-2 in their last ten games and, going into Thursday’s game against Dallas, have lost their last two. The onus really is on the Sharks to pull their game together. Joe Pavelski leads the team in points and goals, and here the gap between best and next best is a little greater than with the Kings. Pavelski has 31 goals, while Logan Couture is second with 21. On the plus side, the Sharks points leaders have better numbers than their Los Angeles counterparts, with Pavelski at 53, Couture and Joe Thornton both at 51. Yes, the Sharks can score, the question remains: can they remember how to defend?
In goal, the Kings’ Jonathan Quick has been raising his game with his team. He made 44 saves in Denver Wednesday. One has to wonder about the Sharks’ Antti Niemi. When the Sharks went down 3-1, in Nashville, one would have expected head coach Todd McLellan to replace his goaltender with Niemi, no matter whose fault the goals were. Changing goalie is a classic way to shake a team up. Instead, Stalock finished the 5-1 loss. Niemi’s last game was Sunday’s 5-2 loss to Tampa Bay. In short, neither San Jose goaltender is on a roll right now.
The Kings will be coming off a two day layoff, after a dominant win over the struggling Colorado Avalanche. The Sharks lost Tuesday to the top-ranked team in the NHL. What they do in Dallas could give us a clue to their state of mind, but as we have seen, the Sharks are unpredictable.
With some of their best players returned to the lineup (Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun and Tommy Wingels have all made their way back from injury), the Sharks are clean out of excuses, real or imaginary. San Jose has reached a new level of inconsistency this season. Their good games have been really good, while their bad games have been shocking. Is it time for a new coach? Are they just not good enough? Are those wins against top teams just their opponents playing down to them, as they do to weaker teams? Have they just found a new level of underperforming?