It was a playoff preview of sorts here Thursday night, a meeting between two Western Conference powerhouses almost certain to meet in the opening round of the NHL playoffs. That'd be the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks, two teams that played in a riveting, physical second-round series that went the distance last year, the Kings prevailing in a series in which the home team won every time out.
The Sharks are far enough ahead of the Kings in the standings that they'll get home-ice advantage this time around, assuming they cannot haul in the Anaheim Ducks over the final 10 days of the regular season. But they know the Kings are a tough out in any playoff series, having won the Stanley Cup two years ago and getting to the semi-finals last year. Also: L.A. had won 15 of its previous 19 games, with the sort of late-season push to the playoffs that has become familiar in the Darryl Sutter era.
So it was a statement game on the San Jose side at least, and after a slow-starting first period, they turned the momentum around and won it in the end, 2-1 on a pair of second-period goals by Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. Joe Thornton was held off the score sheet officially, but he was a dominant physical force, playing with a chip on his shoulder the whole night, matched up largely against the Kings' line centered by Jeff Carter.
"I just wanted to hit something tonight," said Thornton. "That was the game plan. We're starting to ramp up our game a little bit and that was the case tonight. We might see these guys in 12 days or so – so play hard and just see what happens.
"We've played each other twice in the postseason the last three or four years. We tend not to like Anaheim as well, so it might just be a California thing. I don't think all three teams like each other, so it makes for good hockey games."
With the last change, coach Todd McLellan then matched Couture, Patrick Marleau and Tommy Wingels against the Kings' No. 1 line, centered by Anze Kopitar. Jordan Nolan for L.A. and Couture for the Sharks scored even-strength goals. The difference in the game was a power-play goal eventually credited to Pavelski, with the Kings' Dustin Brown off for roughing. The Sharks played a man short seven times, the one part of the game that McLellan didn't like. But overall, he was happy with what he saw from his team.
"The opponent, the environment, what's on the line, it brought the best out of us," said McLellan, "and our remaining games, against Anaheim and everybody really, they should bring out of the best in us as well.
"I like the fact that we stood our ground and battled hard. The physical battles, they're known to win a lot of those, and we were in them for the most part."
Sutter, the crafty veteran Kings coach, kept his starter, Jonathan Quick on the bench, playing rookie Martin Jones instead, and he also held out defenceman Willie Mitchell, not wanting the veteran to play on back-to-back nights.
The Kings got some bad news in the first period when Norris Trophy candidate Drew Doughty appeared to injure his shoulder delivering a check to the Sharks' Tyler Kennedy. With Doughty limited to only 5:21 of playing time, it fell to Slava Voynov, Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez to pick up most of the slack. Voynov played 10 minutes in the second period alone, and finished with a game high 27:44.
The Kings did not immediately provide an update on Doughty's condition, as they move on to play the Vancouver Canucks Saturday, locked into that third spot in the division.
"They're all 1-0 and 2-1 games against these guys," said Thornton, "and they're always good physical games and tonight was just the same thing as always."
There isn't much to choose from between these teams, and if they meet in the playoffs, it figures to be a war again.
"Leaders have to lead in those situations and L.A.'s bigger players, their size, they always play hard – and ours showed up tonight," said McLellan. "When your leaders play that way, everybody has to follow. They really have no choice. It was a job well done by our group."
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