There was always a sense that the road to the Stanley Cup Final for the Sharks this postseason would run through Los Angeles but, at least at the start of the year, few expected the stop in L.A. to come quite this early. Unfortunately, Anaheim's 5-2 victory over the Sharks last night locked up the Pacific Division title for the Ducks and locked in a meeting between the Sharks and Kings in the first round of the playoffs, likely set to begin next Wednesday. There are plenty of reasons why facing the powerhouse Kings in the first round rather than the second is the worst thing ever for San Jose; there was the off-chance the Ducks could beat the Kings in their first-round series and the Sharks would avoid L.A. all together, the likelihood of injured forward Tomas Hertl being available to the team increases in the second round and, even if the Sharks survive Los Angeles in round one, they'll likely be bloodied and beaten for their next series.
But we're all about positive thinking at Fear The Fin, so here are five reasons why you should embrace the inevitable and accept that maybe the Sharks playing the Kings in the first round isn't the worst thing ever:
1. A series win over Minnesota would have been boring
Sure, Jacques Lemaire isn't behind the Minnesota bench anymore but was anyone really looking forward to 4-7 games of Wild hockey? Despite blowing $200 million on Zach Parise and Ryan Suter (and cancelling half an NHL season as a result—thanks Craig Leipold!), the Wild still employ a style of play chock full of neutral zone "action" with the puck bouncing between bluelines for the majority of their games.
There wouldn't have been anything redeeming about this matchup; even the series of trades San Jose and Minnesota conducted three years ago wouldn't have fueled an interesting subplot seeing as Devin Setoguchi is now in Winnipeg, Dany Heatley is now in the press box and Charlie Coyle hasn't really developed into an impact player yet. I guess watching Brent Burns eliminate the team that traded him would have been somewhat enjoyable but, overall, the Sharks dispatching the Wild, while no doubt conducive to a lengthy playoff run, would have placed on the shortlist of most boring playoff series in franchise history. Regardless of the outcome, this series against the Kings is going to be one of the best and we won't have had to wait out a monotonous first round to get to it.
2. A series loss to Minnesota would have been humiliating
You know what's worse than a boring series win over the Minnesota Wild? A boring series loss to the Minnesota Wild, accompanied by another massive helping of postseason humiliation. Anything can happen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and third-string Minnesota goaltender Darcy Kuemper inexplicably posting a .966 SV% to eliminate the Sharks in six games is one of those awful possibilities. Sure, San Jose would have been the heavy favorite against Minnesota but they were also the heavy favorite against Anaheim in 2009 and Dallas in 2008 and Edmonton in 2006 and Calgary in 2004 and...you get the idea. Shit happens in the playoffs and that shit always seems to get disproportionately sprayed all over the Sharks.
Getting eliminated by the Wild would not only have been hard to stomach for the fanbase but could have led to some serious overreaction from management, possibly blowing up parts of a team that, regardless of how this postseason goes, is among the league's elite when healthy. While a loss to the Kings will bring with it a different brand of resentment and distaste, at least the Sharks can hold their heads high and credibly claim they lost to a better hockey team. That wouldn't have been possible following an elimination at the hands of the Wild. I guess what I'm saying is that if the Sharks exit the postseason in the first round this year, at least it will be with a bang and not a Kuemper. (I'm sorry.)
3. Special teams will likely be a bigger factor
There's one area the Sharks have a significant edge over the Kings, and it's reason enough to be optimistic about this series in spite of San Jose's recent performance. That area is special teams. As Patrick D. demonstrated last summer, shot rate is the best predictor of power play success and the Sharks have been the best team in the NHL in that category while the Kings are 14th. San Jose also allows the fourth-fewest shots against per minute (and eighth-fewest goals per minute) on the penalty kill while Los Angeles has been 14th and 17th by those measures. To top it all off, the Sharks have drawn more power play opportunities than all but two other teams this season while the Kings have been shorthanded more often than all but two clubs. Since there's evidence to suggest penalty calls are highest during the first round of the postseason, this could work out pretty well for the Sharks. They might not be able to compete with the Kings at even-strength, especially with their forward injuries and bizarre lineup decisions, but San Jose could have an opportunity to win this series on the power play as they did against Vancouver last spring.
4. It kicks off a hell of a revenge tour
This first-round matchup with Los Angeles sets the Sharks up for what could be a version of the 1997 Denver Broncos' revenge tour on steroids. If they pull off a series victory against the Dustin Brown-employing intrastate rival that knocked them out of the postseason less than a year ago, they'll move on to (likely) face the division-winning Anaheim Ducks team responsible for the Sharks' most embarrassing playoff loss of all time. A win there sets up a conference final meeting with either longtime rival St. Louis, who handed the Sharks their quickest postseason exit ever just two years ago, or the Chicago Blackhawks, who denied the Sharks the chance to compete in the Stanley Cup Final in 2010 by becoming the second opponent to ever sweep San Jose in a series.
If all goes well, the final stop of the revenge tour would be the revengiest of them all, with Joe Thornton having a chance to win the Stanley Cup against the team that dealt him away for pennies on the dollar nearly a decade ago because they believed he didn't have what it takes to lead a team to playoff success. Upsets happen, so none of these matchups are guaranteed even if the Sharks are able to go the distance but starting off against L.A. instead of Minnesota at least gets the revenge mobile out of the driveway.
5. Sharks can rest players for the final two regular season games
If there's a positive to the Sharks losing the game and the Pacific Division title to the Anaheim Ducks last night, it's that their final two games of the season—at home against Colorado on Friday and on the road in Phoenix on Saturday—are now utterly meaningless, meaning Todd McLellan and his coaching staff are free to rest their key players heading into the postseason. It's not hugely significant but it's a luxury San Jose hasn't had in three years as they were jostling for playoff position through the 2012 and 2013 regular season finales and therefore dressed their full lineups until the end of those campaigns. 37-year-old Dan Boyle in particular could probably use the time off, as could Joe Thornton after sustaining what looked like a left arm injury late last night. And while we're mining the loss to Anaheim for positives, perhaps getting decisively outplayed in the biggest game of the season will convince the coaching staff to rethink their lineup decisions and forward usage in particular but I'm not holding my breath.