Sharks at Kings Preview: Everything to gain

Thursday night’s contest will mark the first of three quick-succession games against LA.

When the San Jose Sharks (24-25-7, seventh Pacific) take on the Los Angeles Kings (32-19-7, second Pacific), they will buoying themselves against a team riding a three-game wave of recent wins. The hosting Kings are in prime position to make the playoffs, trailing only the Calgary Flames in the Pacific Division. The Sharks, on the other hand, are still trying to orchestrate a turnaround just six games from the March 21 trade deadline.

By that time, pending unrestricted free agent Tomas Hertl may very well be on his way out, taking with him any feasible attempt at making a postseason push. Some believe that ship has already sailed — but with six point up for grabs during this regular season series of three games between these two division rivals within the next week, there may be some cause to at least feel good about the Sharks moving forward.

It’s a familiar sentiment. But the picture has shifted a little since the last time these two teams met, when San Jose prevailed 6-2 in Timo Meier’s historic five-goal game. Anze Kopitar currently leads the Kings by a large margin with 51 points (15 goals, 36 assists), followed by Viktor Arvidsson with 38 points (18 goals, 20 assists). With just defender Mikey Anderson and forward Brendan Lemieux likely out tomorrow, LA is mostly healthy, too.

At this moment in time, the Sharks and Kings are polar reflections of what a ‘retooling, not rebuilding’ phase looks like. Since winning the Stanley Cup back in 2014, the Kings have retained their core of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick. Since the Sharks’ 2016 Stanley Cup appearance, Logan Couture, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Hertl remain.

Through the years, Adrian Kempe for Los Angeles, and Timo Meier for San Jose, have emerged as future leaders of their respective franchises. The Sharks have also added Erik Karlsson, of which the closest comparison for the Kings may be recently signed Phillip Danault. Both are on contracts that expire in 2027.

Since their most recently successful seasons, both California clubs have steadily fallen from contention as once-dominant forces in the league and have favored a strategy of enhancing through low-term and depth signings, meanwhile rearing high-end prospects such as Quinton Byfield and William Eklund.

But the Kings hit their mark by winning the Cup in 2014, while the Sharks are still without one in their 31-year history. Not to mention that this year may see the Kings trying again with their Northern California foes sidelined for the third year in a row.

Could it possibly be that the Kings are two years farther along in their retool, or is there a deeper, lingering issue on the end of the Sharks? Could the rivalry of these two teams crawl back into the nightmarish form that saw a miraculous Game 3 Sharks comeback in the first postseason meeting between both teams, a 2014 series Kings reverse-sweep, a Stadium Series and countless unheralded moments in California hockey history? Or is it just a Sharks pipe-dream?

With the future of Hertl looming and the pressure on this team continuing to mount, the Sharks only have everything to gain. Needless to say, the team shouldn’t be worrying about reigniting a decade-old rivalry. Nor should they be worrying about igniting a rebuild at the correct time. As for Hertl, the ball is in his court, after seeing how his teammates have performed in the last 10 games.

Simplify the mindset

Unless it’s against a team below them in the standings, I believe San Jose is past the point of scavenging for tactical advantage. Perhaps the Sharks should just focus on playing as a team. This is different from playing to win, but despite a less-than-stellar season, there is still a very talented group of players here who are capable of playing great hockey. Of that group is Erik Karlsson, who candidly addressed the media, rhetorically asking, “Who knows how long it will take until we get back to where we want to be? I don’t have the answers.

“We’re going to show up and do our best and that’s never going to change. Hopefully, as I said, this year will be a good building block for what we need to do come next year.”

What Karlsson said speaks volumes of his leadership, the acknowledgement that at least some of the team’s leadership is here to stay and the confidence that things will get better. Going down the stretch without many wins to show, it’s easy to lose sight of all that. But for better or worse, whoever is here on the team now is who they have to play with, and every game is a new chance to reset and get a win.

Recognize who you’re playing in front of

James Reimer is gone for the time being and Adin Hill isn’t yet close to returning. Whether it’s Alex Stalock or Zach Sawchenko, there will either be a goaltender who is in a bit of a cold start situation or one who is relatively inexperienced. The Sharks just can’t hang their netminders out to dry like they did against the Nashville Predators back on March 5.

Not only must they block shots, they must make it a point to control traffic in front and keep blown defensive assignments to a minimum — even if that means the defense playing more conservatively on transitions or in the offensive zone.

Capitalize on the good feels

Every goal and every good shift is a reason to celebrate. If Karlsson is available to play, after missing the past month due to arm surgery, that is fuel for starting the game on a high. Same goes for Jonathan Dahlen and Jaycob Megna. If any of them score on their return, that could be a game-changer. There are others players who are due to score, whether they are Timo Meier or one of the Sharks’ several rookies.

If any of this happens, use it to build momentum. No game is perfect, and there will be mistakes and low-points, but small victories can be amplified and momentum can often earn one that wasn’t expected in the win column.

Bold prediction:  Despite having to play conservatively in front of Sawchenko, we see the beginnings of a lucrative Ryan Merkley/Erik Karlsson duo, who will both be good for a +1 in a close 3-2 win.