- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- For a team that had 111 points in the standings, the San Jose Sharks sure aren't getting a lot of love from prognosticators in their first-round series with the rival Los Angeles Kings.
Most people are picking the 2012 champs to beat the Sharks in what is shaping up to be another compelling series between a pair of contending teams.
It's a series worthy of the conference finals, but somebody has to go home early. Most people are predicting that it will be San Jose.
"Oh, good for them," Sharks star defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said on the eve of Game 1.
"Why are they picking L.A.? Because they won the Cup two years ago and beat us last year, I guess," he added, answering his own question. "People can pick who they want. We don't care. It's an evenly matched series. Last year went to seven [games], and this year I would expect the same. I don't mind if everybody picks L.A. I'm here to win. We want to prove to ourselves that we can beat all the best teams."
It's a fascinating thing, really, to see a Sharks team loaded with talent and owning home-ice advantage to somehow enter this series as a slight underdog.
"We're so evenly matched," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "I don't know how you pick a favorite. Their past success has to allow them to maybe come out on top [as a favorite] and the fact that they beat us last year. But quite frankly, I don't think anybody in our locker room -- and I'm guessing [nobody] in their locker room -- is paying any attention to what you guys do on your five days off when you have nothing left to write about.
"It's the stories after the series that are important, not the ones before."
This season, the Sharks would have Game 7 at home, which is not insignificant for a team with the second-best home record in the NHL. The Shark Tank is as noisy as any rink in the NHL, and the Sharks feed off that.
"It's definitely loud. It's a fun place to play. Our fans are great and crazy," longtime star winger Patrick Marleau said. "It's great to play in front of them."
On the other matter, well, that remains an edge for the Kings. Quick is arguably the top money goalie in the league, while Niemi struggled down the stretch this season. Niemi is expected to start in goal for Game 1, but one suspects the Sharks' coaching staff won't be shy to put in backup Alex Stalock at any point if the veteran Finn struggles early in this series.
There's nothing the Sharks can do to change that facet of this series: The Kings have the better goalie, and everybody knows it.
So you move on to other areas of the game, and where the Sharks have improved -- if healthy -- is their depth up front.
Tomas Hertl and Raffi Torres are both expected to play in Game 1 after each missed most of the season recovering from knee surgery. Hertl played the last two regular-season games to try to get into game shape while Torres did not.
What the Sharks get from these two guys could be a factor in any matchup advantage they can establish on the Kings.
"We have a deep team," Vlasic said. "Even if Raffi or Hertl play limited minutes, I still feel we have the team in here to beat L.A. With those guys back, it'll just give us a big boost."
The dilemma for San Jose is what to do with 41-goal scorer Joe Pavelski. Do you keep him on the left wing on Joe Thornton's line, where Pavelski did most of his damage this season, or do you put Hertl back on that line and have Pavelski as a third-line center, which is a real luxury?
In Tuesday's practice, Pavelski skated as the third-line center. In Wednesday's practice, Pavelski was back on the wing with Thornton.
Theory: The Sharks have the last line change at home for Games 1 and 2. They can keep Pavelski on Thornton's line and better control matchups throughout the game, including key faceoffs. For Games 3 and 4 in L.A., without the last line change, maybe Pavelski becomes a third-line center in order to protect the faceoff circle.
It's going to be one of the most fascinating decisions throughout the series because the Kings' third-line center, Jarret Stoll, is a master in the faceoff circle and always raises his game come playoff time.
Another interesting matchup will see Vlasic, San Jose's top defenseman, likely match up against the Kings' top line, centered by Anze Kopitar.
Vlasic's confidence grew after a clutch performance at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, with gold-medal-winning Team Canada.
"That's going to be awesome," Vlasic said of facing Kopitar's line. "Same thing last year. A lot more speed on that line now with [Marian] Gaborik, too. Kopitar is one of the best two-way forwards in the league. [Justin] Williams is so good around the net. Hey, I'm looking forward to it; it's a great opportunity."
That's the attitude you find in the Sharks' locker room, that this incredible first-round matchup, pitting two bona fide contenders, is an opportunity, not a burden.
Like it or not, the Sharks need this series win -- and perhaps a few others -- to shed their label.
Despite playing in back-to-back Western Conference finals in 2010 and 2011 -- and pushing the Kings to the limit in the second round last season -- the Sharks still carry the reputation as the team that leaves you wanting more at this time of year.
And that's probably because their two California cousins in Anaheim and L.A. each have a Stanley Cup banner hanging in their respective rinks. The California hockey standard is high.
"Everyone's quick to pick L.A. because they're just a harder, more methodical team for me," a Western Conference head coach told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "The biggest thing, first of all, is that L.A. has better goaltending. No. 2, who's more apt to make a big mistake at a critical time that's going to cost you a game? I really believe San Jose is more apt to make that mistake, whereas L.A. just isn't going to."
A Western Conference executive from another team said the Sharks, however, have become a much better playoff team over the years.
"San Jose has worked tirelessly to get themselves over the hump," he said Wednesday. "They have added speed to their lineup. They roll four lines, and their young forwards [Pavelski and Logan Couture] are approaching their prime. Their veterans know that it's essentially now or never for them. They will play with desperation in this series."
When asked who he was picking, though, the executive said, "L.A."
The Kings are the people's pick, so the opportunity is here for the Sharks to make a statement, perhaps their most important in years.
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