SAN JOSE -- San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl may be an NHL rookie from the Czech Republic, but no one has to tell him about the heated rivalry that exists between his team and the Los Angeles Kings.
In a Dec. 19 game against the Kings at Staples Center, Hertl took a knee-on-knee hit from Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown. Hertl severely damaged two ligaments in his right knee, underwent surgery on Dec. 31 and missed 45 games.
Hertl returned for San Jose's final two regular-season games, and after back-to-back solid performances appears likely to be in the lineup Thursday night at SAP Center for Game 1 against the Kings (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC) in a Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round series.
"It's personal," Hertl said after practice Monday. "It's L.A. … For me, it's more motivation because (it's) L.A. I want to beat L.A."
After playing the Colorado Avalanche on Friday in his first game in nearly four months, Hertl couldn't help but look ahead to the postseason.
"Playoff time, it's more important, because it's L.A.," Hertl said. "I [don't] much like L.A. this season."
Hertl had 15 goals and 10 assists in 35 games before sustaining the injury. He nearly scored a goal on his first shift in his return, ripping a shot from the left faceoff circle that Colorado goaltender Reto Berra was able to deny with his glove.
"His excitement brings an added presence to our lineup," Sharks forward Tommy Wingels said. "He's really happy to be back in and we're happy for him. I think he brings an offensive punch and some enjoyment and fun to the game, and obviously his skill level and goal scoring. He's proven how capable he is. His goal scoring's great, so we're going to look forward to him continuing that."
When Hertl returned to action against Colorado, he skated on the third line with center James Sheppard and Wingels. That's where he played for much of the game Saturday against the Phoenix Coyotes, but coach Todd McLellan did use him on the top line with center Joe Thornton and forward Brent Burns, bumping left wing Joe Pavelski to third-line center.
Hertl skated with Thornton and Burns before his injury. If he rejoins that line and Pavelski centers the third line, San Jose would have depth up the middle against a very deep Kings lineup.
McLellan, however, said he hadn't decided whether Hertl will even be in the lineup Thursday.
"He's only played six periods, probably 20 minutes of hockey, since the middle of December," McLellan said. "If he can come in and contribute and be a positive influence on the game, then he'll play. If not, we'll have some decisions to make."
McLellan said he liked the "sense of timing" Hertl showed on the ice in his past two games.
"When you don't have that sense of timing, you don't feel what's going on around you. It can be dangerous to you as an individual," McLellan said. "It certainly doesn't help the team. I've viewed the two games and watched them, and I think he has a pretty good sense of that. His practice time has allowed him to feel it a little bit. But again, it's a different monster when the playoffs roll around in comparison to the last two games of the regular season."
Hertl said his knee was "a little bit tired and sore" after playing back-to-back games. A day off Sunday helped.
"Now it feels much better, and I am ready to start the playoffs," said Hertl, who skated with Sheppard and Wingels during practice.
Sheppard and Wingels gave Hertl high marks for his performance against Colorado and Phoenix after being out for so long.
"He's very smart for being as young as he is on the ice," Sheppard said. "It's great because you can rely on him to get pucks out and be good on the boards and things like that. It's great playing with him. It's a lot of fun. When he finally gets the game speed back, which we could see a lot of it last game, when he gets it back fully he's going to be on fire, I think."
Wingels said Hertl is "ready" for the playoffs.
"He's a big kid, big and strong," Wingels said. "He's shown in the past couple games he can win battles and engage in those battles in the corners and along the boards, and that's what this series is going to be. And Tomas' game is very good in those areas."
For Hertl and the Sharks, the series against Los Angeles will also be about payback.
"He wasn't happy about it, we weren't happy about it," Wingels said of Brown's hit on Hertl. "He's aware that it was against the Kings. He would love to stick it to them by winning the series."