After the lone game last night between the Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars, NBCSN teased a rankings show of the "NHL Top 10 Toughest Places to Play." There was a quick montage of different arenas during the teaser, including a clear shot of the distinctive two tier interior of the SAP Center. It makes sense - the Shark Tank has long been considered one of the louder arenas in the league, and with a 10 arena list, it seemed as though San Jose had a 33% chance of making it in.
Right before the list debuted, as NBCSN's post-game panel was previewing that rankings show, Keith Jones specifically mentioned San Jose being included on the list. "You wouldn't expect it out in California," was how Jones framed it. Despite the back-handed compliment, that San Jose was specifically mentioned made this ranking must-watch viewing (that, and there was nothing else on).
Here is the list, as ranked by NBC Sports Network:
- Boston Garden (Boston Bruins)
- Montreal Forum (Montreal Canadiens)
- SAP Center at San Jose (San Jose Sharks)
- Chicago Stadium (Chicago Blackhawks)
- United Center (Chicago Blackhawks)
- The Spectrum (Philadelphia Flyers)
- Madison Square Garden (New York Rangers)
- Buffalo Memorial Auditorium (Buffalo Sabres)
- Wells Fargo Center (Philadelphia Flyers)
- Bell Centre (Montreal Canadiens)
Not only did the SAP Center make the list, they were third. Not only did the SAP Center place third, but third all-time. The Aud, the Madhouse on Madison, the Spectrum... The SAP Center is considered a tougher place to play than all save for the now-defunct Montreal and Boston barns. The SAP Center, therefore, is currently the toughest place to play in the NHL.
Even more impressive is the company the Sharks keep on the list. Six spots are arenas occupied by Original Six teams. Three come in the first expansion era, in traditional hockey markets of Buffalo (practically Canada) and Philadelphia (who had an NHL team in the pre-Original Six era). And then there's San Jose, a 1990s expansion team in California.
Like any sort of subjective list, the rankings do have to be questioned. The MTS Center has already become notorious in the few years the Jets 2.0 have been back, though the brevity and lack of playoffs could explain it. I'm lucky enough to have gone to a Blackhawks game at United Center; even before the Cups (though after Dollar Bill Wirtz had died) the place was rocking. Philadelphia is Philadelphia (and not Des Moines, Iowa). I would even hesitate to put SAP Center in the top three, simply because of the lack of history and gravitas the building has relative to the older arenas. It certainly deserves a spot, but where?
There's a nice video segment NBCSN put together explaining why it's so tough. Scotty Bowman brings up that he's never seen empty seats. Toronto writer David Shoalts accidentally calls it "Silicone Valley," which isn't relevant but is still pretty funny. Logan Couture states that according to opposing players, "In the first ten minutes, it feels like they're under siege in our rink." You can watch the full segment in all of it's recorded-off-my-TV glory here.
This would have been brought up regardless of the opponent, but that the Sharks are playing the Los Angeles Kings makes this even more fitting. For the past few seasons, home ice has ruled in this match-up. The last 13 times these teams have met, the home team has come away with with the win. You have to go back to a world with only two Gary Bettman-led lockouts to find the last time one of these California teams have won in the other's arena (April 5, 2012 - a 6-5 Sharks win). 17 of the last 18 games between the teams have been won by the home team; that 19th game features Joe Thornton sliding on Staples Center ice after he scored the series-winning goal in overtime.
To add to that, 11 of the last 14 games have been decided by a single goal. In a margin that close, home ice certainly plays a part. The last change, the familiarity with the bounces off the boards, and yes, even the crowd's energy can play a role.
The Kings have been a very good team for a few years, after straddling between the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks methodologies of building teams (tanking and drafting versus trading and drafting). Anze Kopitar is arguably the best center in the tough Pacific Division. Tyler Toffoli is a bit of a dark horse Calder pick (though only a quarter of the way into the season, who knows). The Kings have a deep, tough lineup that matches up well against the Sharks.
But remember: hardest place to play in the NHL!
|16-6-3, 35 points
||15-3-5, 35 points|
|3rd in Pacific
||2nd in Pacific|
Projected Sharks Lineup
Projected Kings Lineup