Playing a winning brand of hockey inside San Jose’s SAP Center isn’t exactly navigating uncharted waters for the Los Angeles Kings, even if they’ve dropped their last seven regular season games inside the Sharks’ notoriously loud home arena. Including the three games from the teams’ playoff series last spring, each of the last eight road games the Kings have played in the series has been decided by one goal, with five games determined in overtime or a shootout.
This particular game could see an already heated rivalry absorb some additional emotion as the teams meet for the first time since dynamic San Jose rookie Tomas Hertl was injured in a collision with Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown near the Sharks’ blueline in a 4-1 Los Angeles win on December 19. Brown, who said that “we didn’t see each other until it happened” and alluded to an attempt to avoid Hertl, was assessed a game misconduct on the play and did not receive any supplemental discipline. Hertl underwent surgery to repair damage to his knee shortly after the incident and may be out for the season.
As reported by Kevin Kurz of CSNBayArea following the Sharks’ optional practice on Sunday, the home team will have Hertl on its mind for tomorrow’s game (7:00 p.m. / NBCSN) as part of a rallying cry.
“We’re going to win the game for Hertl, that’s what we’ll do,” San Jose defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic told reporters. “There’s nothing you can do now but play hard, and win the game for him.”
Brown isn’t expecting anything different than the familiar impassioned exchanges between the teams that have met in the playoffs in two of the last three seasons.
“I don’t think it’ll be anything different than what it normally is,” Brown said after skating in Los Angeles’ optional practice. “As the season winds down, you start to see the point totals kind of wind down. I mean, this is a key game for both teams. I mean, I’ll be prepared for whatever, but both teams are probably going to be focused on the two points. They’re too important for teams to be worrying about other things right now. We’ve lost five straight. The only thing I’m concerned about is getting two points in San Jose. That’s not an easy building to go in and play, so we’ve got to be prepared.”
That both teams will be keyed in on obtaining two points, and not on each other, was a refrain used in both the Los Angeles and San Jose dressing rooms on Sunday.
“I think emotion’s going to be high just because it always is,” center Anze Kopitar said. “We always have pretty good battles with those guys. The games get pretty intense. Will it be some extra stuff because Brownie was involved in that particular incident, or hit, or whatever you want to call it? We’ll see. Obviously we’re sticking together. We’re going to stick together up there, too, and we’ll see what happens.”
Though the December 19 win gave the Kings a four-point cushion over the Sharks, the two teams have headed in opposite directions since then. Los Angeles, 0-4-1 in its last five, will head into Northern California 10 points behind a San Jose team that has won six straight.
“I mean, that’s just the nature of the beast with the NHL schedule and the whole thing,” Brown said. “Going back to last year, I don’t know if we’ve won in that building. I can’t recall. But, again, that was part of who they are as a team. They’ve been playing well lately. It’s always a fun building to play in because the atmosphere is very good in there, but it’s a very tough building to win in.”
It should be a challenging environment, one that Brown doesn’t expect to change significantly given the evolution of the rivalry this season.
“I think it’s always pretty much the same when we come in there,” he said. “Again, I’m not sure if it’s like that for every team, but I’m sure we’ve played them twice in the playoffs, and I would think they would probably agree that their biggest rivalries are teams they play in the playoffs, and you kind of grow that rivalry through doing just that.”