Thursday February 19th, 2015

Off The Draw

The Stadium Series game on Saturday between the Kings and the Sharks at Levi's Stadium was always bound to be a big event. One of just two outdoor games on this season's schedule, it figured to be a marketing bonanza, a sizable contributor to the league's revenue pile and a TV ratings magnet.

But all of a sudden, it also matters. In fact, this late-season showdown between Pacific Division rivals sets up as the most consequential outdoor game in NHL history.

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There have been some compelling matchups in the past. The Penguins-Sabres Winter Classic in 2008 demonstrated that not only was the outdoor concept viable, but that it could also be a cash cow. The flurry-filled '14 Classic renewed a fading rivalry between the Maple Leafs and the Red Wings. And the Stadium Series game 24 days later at Dodger Stadium between L.A. and the Ducks proved that palm trees were nice alternatives to snow globes — and that outdoor hockey could be played even in warm weather.

But the scores of those games were secondary. There were points on the line, but the standings were secondary to the spectacle.

Until now.

With a 4-1 win over the Avalanche on Wednesday night, the Kings leapfrogged San Jose in the standings and now hold the Western Conference's second wild-card spot. The two teams both have 66 points in the standings, but Los Angeles has two games in hand. The victory over Colorado was the sixth in a row for the defending Stanley Cup champs, who seemed out of the postseason running at the All-Star break, but now have every team ahead of them in the standings fretfully glancing into their rear-view mirrors.

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Levi’s Stadium to host spectacle during Kings-Sharks outdoor game

These are the Kings that men fear. We've seen glimpses this season of what makes L.A. great — the mastery of puck possession, the relentless finishing of checks, the scoring depth, the impenetrable Jonathan Quick — but it hasn't all come together until recently. There's been a renewed urgency to the Kings' game, a greater commitment to the defensive principles that powered their two championships in three years. There's also been a bit of fortuitous recasting. Since losing Tanner Pearson to a broken leg, coach Darryl Sutter has recast depth forward Dwight King in Pearson's scoring role on the second line alongside Tyler Toffoli and Jeff Carter. King has responded with three goals and five assists in a five-game scoring streak.

"When we struggled, we had one line going a night," captain Dustin Brown told the Los Angeles Times. "But we've had other lines pitching in [lately]. Our D-zone [coverage] has been a lot better, too."

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The Sharks, on the other hand, are struggling at both ends of the ice. With just two regulation wins in nine games this month, they've turned what was once a comfortable hold on a playoff berth into a potential spot in the draft lottery. Their offense, once their fail-safe, has been wildly inconsistent, only seeming to succeed when it plays recklessly, which has led to serious problems in the defensive end. San Jose has allowed five goals in each of two consecutive losses to the Predators and the Lightning, making it five times this month they've allowed as many goals in a game. The Sharks' even-strength save percentage has dropped to just .916, 23rd in the NHL, and they're stuck taking 33.7% of all their face-offs in their own zone, the seventh highest rate in the league. The penalty kill has also been a lingering problem, bumbling along at just 64.3% over the last six games.

And while the Kings get to rest up for the next two days in San Jose, the Sharks are in Dallas tonight looking to earn some desperately needed points. More important for them, though, is getting their game back in order.

"I think right now we need to make a decision as a group [about] what we are," coach Todd McLellan told Rogers Sportsnet. "Our identity ... I wouldn't call it an identity crisis, but we need to figure out how hard and how far we want to go to win games. Do we want to block shots, or are we prepared to get out of the way and then take our chances on the win? I think our team needs to commit to doing it right all the time."

If San Jose doesn't make up its mind quickly, the Sharks playoff hopes will get buried fast. And L.A. will be waiting for them outdoors on Saturday, shovels in hand.

What to watch tonight

Predators at Islanders, 7:00 ET (FS-TN, MSG+)

A perfect 4-0-0 home stand in the rearview mirror, league-leading Nashville (still sounds weird, doesn't it?) is headed to Long Island to kick off a three-game road trip. The burning question: Will the Predators have recently acquired reinforcements Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli in the lineup? Visa issues have held both players out so far, but the problems are expected to be cleared up in the next few days. No word yet on whether that will happen in time for Thursday night's game.

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One thing is certain: Pekka Rinne, who made a season-high 42 saves on Tuesday in a win over San Jose, will get the start. The Vezina Trophy favorite has won five straight and has gone a remarkable 15-1-1 in his last 17 outings.

Nashville has owned the Isles recently, winning eight in a row before losing their most recent meeting on Nov. 12, 2013. That New York team didn't have Jaroslav Halak, who is 3-0-1 with a 1.47 goals-against average in his last four starts against the Predators.

The Islanders have won five of their last six games, but need to get back on track after losing to the Rangers last Monday night.

Also on tap: Canucks at Rangers, 7:00 ET (TVA, SNP, MSG); Sabres at Flyers, 7:00 ET (MSG-B, BELL TV, CSN-PH); Blue Jackets at Penguins, 7:00 ET (NBCSN, SN360, SNO, SNW, ROOT); Jets at Capitals, 7:00 ET (TSN3, CSN-DC); Panthers at Canadiens, 7:30 ET (FS-F, RDS, SNE); Sharks at Stars, 8:30 ET (CSN-CA, FS-SW)

What you missed

• The urge to go may be overwhelming at times, but Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews wants you to know that you can't just get up whenever you want at a hockey game. He breaks down arena etiquette in a glorious PSA.

• Herb Brooks's family is auctioning off some of the late coaching icon's memorabilia. Now's the time to get your 1980 Miracle on Ice championship ring, and other mementos of USA hockey.

• This friendly crow made his way into hockey's hearts on Wednesday when he wandered in front of the Levi's Stadium webcam. Here’s a breakdown of the first appearance of the Stadium Series’ unofficial mascot.

The numbers game

• Kings defenseman Drew Doughty (0-2-2) posted his fourth multiassist game of the season in Wednesday night’s win over the Avs. The 24-year-old Doughty is set to make his milestone 500th appearance on Saturday in the Stadium Series game at Levi’s Stadium.

Oilers defenseman Martin Marincin celebrated his 23rd birthday by scoring the decisive goal in a 12-round shootout victory over the Bruins. With the victory, Edmonton snapped a 13-game winless streak against Boston and earned its first home win over the Bruins since a 6–1 decision on Oct. 17, 2000.

• According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Senators rookie Andrew Hammond became the oldest goalie (27 years, eight days) in franchise history to earn a win in his first career start in Ottawa’s 4–2 victory over Montreal on Wednesday night.

Hot links

• Ed Willes offers a fascinating profile of Vancouver rookie Ronalds Kenins, whose life story reads like a Dickens novel.

• The hockey world is stepping up its efforts to support mental health, but in the wake of the death of Steve Montador, is it doing enough?

• "The one thing I notice here being here two days is a lot of negative energy around here," said Olli Jokinen, who was recently traded to Toronto.

• Canada will be without its all-time leading scorer at the upcoming World Women's Hockey Championship.

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