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Sharks finally get playoff series with LA
Inter-state rivals set to square off
4/3/11 - By Mike Lee -

FIRST ROUND SCHEDULE
Date  Game  Time
4/14 Game 1: LA @ SJ 7:00 p.m.
4/16 Game 2: LA @ SJ 7:00 p.m.
4/19 Game 3: SJ @ LA 7:30 p.m.
4/21 Game 4: SJ @ LA 7:30 p.m.
4/23 *Game 5: LA @ SJ 7:30 p.m.
4/25 *Game 6: SJ @ LA TBD
4/27 *Game 7: LA @ SJ TBD
 * - if necessary
It’s taken twenty seasons, but the Sharks finally get a chance to compete against their in-state rivals, the Los Angeles Kings, in a playoff series. San Jose has played every other team in the Pacific division in at least one playoff series over the past two decades, but until this year, the Sharks have never locked horns in a do-or-die series against the team’s arguably their biggest rival.

With the Chicago Blackhawks losing on Sunday, the Sharks get the Kings for the first time in team history and perhaps the most fitting scenario for San Jose. It was Wayne Gretzky, then a King, who lobbied to bring more hockey to California, and the Bay Area.

The rivalries the Sharks established with the Dallas Stars, Anaheim Ducks and Phoenix Coyotes have been driven by playoff battles, but none of those compare with the regional animosity between Northern and Southern California. Both halves of California love to one-up the other, so a hockey playoff series finally pegs the two against each other in a series that fans have long awaited.

Sharks fans have despised the Kings from day one. There are no “Beat An-a-heim” chants rocking the Tank. The closest thing to venom you’ll hear about the Dallas Stars is a chorus of boo’s anytime the word “Star” is sung during the National Anthem. Don’t even talk about the Coyotes. Phoenix can barely hold on to their team, so why would Sharks fans even bother hating on a team that’ll probably be out of the Pacific Division should the relocate to Hamilton or Quebec City.

It’s all about hating the Kings and everything that’s plastic about Southern California. Northern Californians love giving So-Cal the business because it’s easy. The regional rivalry is easy. The Kings ineptitude over the years is a softball for Sharks fans.

The feelings of Kings fans are probably mutual, especially given the fact that the Kings have wallowed in mediocrity for the past decade and have had to consistently live with the fact that the Sharks have been more successful.

Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi is a storyline that adds a little flavor to the opening round series. Lombardi was unceremoniously fired as the Sharks GM after San Jose tripped a decade into their quest for the Cup.

Lombardi would like nothing better than to knock off his former employer in a playoff series. Add the fact that the Sharks are a two-seed, and a first-round upset would make Lombardi’s year. The fact of the matter is the Sharks are heavily favored in this series for a few reasons.

First and foremost is the Sharks late season run. They’re firing on all cylinders and have shored up their biggest question mark on the blueline. The Kings are also battling injury woes that will leave them without their top scoring threat in Anze Kopitar, who broke his ankle four weeks ago. Justin Williams has also been out due to a dislocated shoulder, but LAKingsInsider.com reports that Williams has been cleared by doctors to resume practicing.

The Sharks went 3-1-2 in the regular season series against the Kings this year.

11/15: Kings 3 @ Sharks 6
12/27: Kings 4 @ Sharks 0
1/1 Sharks 1 @ Kings 0
1/26: Sharks 2 @ Kings 3 (SO)
3/24: Sharks 3 @ Kings 4 (SO)
4/4 Kings 1 @ Sharks 6

The last game between the two teams may have set the tone for what could be a short series. San Jose chased Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick early in the 2nd period after the Sharks put four pucks past him. Los Angeles also won’t have the shoot out to fall back on. They took two of their three wins against the Sharks in the shootout.

It’s taken 20 years to get to this series, but the Sharks have the advantage of a roster who’s nucleus is maturing at the right time. Guys like Patrick Marleau are hitting their stride. Take Koiptar and Williams out of the equation and you have a much different matchup than guys like Lombardi would prefer.

Rivalries aside, this just seems like the Sharks year. It’s been a while since we had to hear Lombardi explain why his team failed to execute, but I hope we get an encore here shortly.

The Antti-Nabokov

In case you missed it, the Sharks awarded goaltender Antti Niemi with the sharks Player of the Year Award before the team’s win over Phoenix on Saturday night. It’s funny how things can play out sometimes. Niemi grabbed control of the Sharks goaltending reigns after Antero Niittymaki suffered an injury in January.

The rest is history. Niemi led the team with 35 wins in net this season after starting the year in a platoon situation with Niittymaki. Evgeni Nabokov got his shot in 2000 when Steve Shields suffered an injury. That year, Nabokov won the same award bestowed on Niemi and would become a mainstay in San Jose for 10 seasons after Shields misfortune.

Niemi inherits a much stronger cast of teammates, and already has the one thing that eluded Nabokov: A Stanley Cup.

Niemi wasn’t the only reason the Sharks turned the season around, but he was a big part of it. It’s going to be a lot of fun to see if he can add to his list of post season hardware.





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