California has become a hockey state. The sunshine of southern California doesn’t dampen the ice at Staples Center. And the tech geeks in Silicon Valley have mastered the art of hockey themselves. Not to knock the Anaheim Ducks, who have enjoyed massive success in their own short history, but the Kings and Sharks are the next big thing in today’s NHL. From Rob Blake jumping ship to the Sharks to the general disdain LA and the Bay have for each other. The Sharks-Kings rivalry has already provided a few epic clashes and with both teams on the ascent into the elite levels, it will only get better. With Wednesday’s back and forth battle, the rivalry is renewed.
While the Kings have climbed power rankings in recent seasons, the Sharks have displayed consistent strength through much of the last two decades. Where the Sharks have failed multiple times in the postseason to even reach the Stanley Cup Finals, the Kings claimed their first title on the back of superstar Jonathan Quick in 2011-12. When the other succeeds, it leaves a bitter taste in mouths.
Conflicting Styles, Close Battles
The Sharks-Kings rivalry has pit the styles of Todd McLellan and Daryl Sutter against each other. And they produce remarkably similar results. Clearly evident in last season’s Western Conference Semifinals, the home team won each game with only one game ending in a victory of over two goals.
McLellan’s Puck Possession
The Sharks love to swarm. Each skater is strong on the puck and makes crisp passes to keep opposing forwards back in their own defensive zone. In the current season, the Sharks have added a “drown your opponent in shots” aspect to their game.
This has created a game in which the Sharks top forwards spend much of the game on the puck. It creates chaos in defensive zones as Pavelski and Couture pressure every rebound. Moreover, it spawns beautifully crafted passing plays that have a goalie bouncing back and forth and eventually watching a puck fly behind them. Last of all, it makes Antti Niemi really bored. He sees less of the puck every night, it seems.
Sutter’s Forecheck and Physicality
Enter Los Angeles. They are big and physical, yet quick and good with their hands. They don’t need to score as many goals as other teams because they have a Conn Smythe winner in the back. Sutter’s team thrives on making opponents fight for every single inch of ice. The forecheck worked wonders in their Cup run two seasons ago. Currently, they lead the NHL in hits with 446.
This gameplan is the perfect answer to a style like San Jose’s offensive press game. The Kings do not tend to blow opponents out on the scoreboard, but they can dominate control of the game. Their big hitters and infuriating forecheck stifle the precision passing of the Sharks. Forcing turnovers gives snipers like Anze Kopitar the chance to create a lead for Jonathan Quick to protect.
Captains Who Lead By Example
Dustin Brown and Joe Thornton a different breed of captain in today’s NHL. The Sharks-Kings rivalry starts with these two big forwards. Dustin Brown enjoys a balance of goals and assists in his point production while Jumbo Joe Thornton leans on assisting his linemates.
Both men embody their team philosophies perfectly. Brown is a key proponent of the forecheck. He hits hard and works the boards as hard as his defenders. Joe Thornton is the calming presence in the middle of the Sharks forward core. He makes smart plays and keeps the passing precise. His most recent resume booster is the Tomas Hertl project.
There is no arguing this point. In the last two seasons, Jonathan Quick and Antti Niemi have flourished in net. Quick and Niemi both ended their playoff campaigns with GAA numbers below 1.90. Niemi was a Vezina finalist through last year’s regular season. Of course, Jonathan Quick’s performance in the 2011-12 playoffs will go down as the stuff of legends.
Even with all of the talent that plays in front of the two netminders, games never seem to get out of hand. The Sharks-Kings rivalry is always kept close by two goalies worthy of any starting job. Nemo has been a rock for the Sharks and has the stamina to play at an elite level for more games than most. Jonathan Quick has launched the Kings into the elite levels of NHL teams.
Playoff Atmospheres Every Night
The feel of these games is tense. There is so much riding on every game between these two that it feels like April. The fans are close enough to where they can travel and make noise in opposing arenas. Both fan bases know opponents superstars and both react accordingly when they touch the puck. Couture gets booed in LA along with Marleau while Kopitar and Dustin Brown receive the same in the South Bay. Nemo will hear is name in an ironic chant after giving up a goal and the Sharks fans have their own way of voicing their displeasure.
Often, the Sharks-Kings rivalry has become the grittier games on the schedule for both teams. San Jose can expect a multitude of bodies to be thrown their way with big hits from the physical Kings becoming a norm. The Sharks often counter with testing Jonathan Quick early and often. Both teams are particularly adept at moving the puck and generating pressure, but turnovers rise when they meet. Pressure from all sides makes defensive zone exits difficult every time. In Wednesday’s game, the high-flying Sharks made more mistakes in one night than we have seen all season long.
The Future of the Sharks-Kings Rivalry
Both of these squads are relatively young. San Jose is still led by the trifecta of Thornton, Marleau, and Boyle but their youngsters have shined early this season. The future is bright in San Jose. Los Angeles has a core group mostly still under the age of 30. Only two forwards even crack the age of 30 (Stoll and Justin Williams). As both netminders reach their primes, the Sharks-Kings rivalry will continue to get better.
What really makes rivalries burn hotter, though, is meeting in the playoffs. Ending an opponent’s season is the best way to make those fans loathe you. But in loathing, that team earns respect. A respect that can only be earned through excellence. The Red Wings-Avalanche clashes of the 90′s were heated battles, but mutual respect was given. The next great rivalry will come out of California. And the Sharks-Kings rivalry promises to bring high quality action for years to come.