The LA Kings open their 2016-17 regular season tonight against the San Jose Sharks. When the schedules were released fans and players could be excused for sighing and muttering "not again."
Not only will this be the third year in a row the two Pacific Division rivals have opened the season against one another, but they've also faced each other in the playoffs four times in the past six seasons. While the Sharks hold the edge in season openers, the playoffs have been a much more even affair.
In 2011, the first time the two teams faced each other in the playoffs, the No. 2 seed Sharks defeated the No. 7 seed Kings in six games. The Sharks had finished first in the Pacific Division three straight seasons and had reached the Western Conference Final the previous season - where they were swept by the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Kings were making only their second playoff appearance in eight seasons and played without Anze Kopitar, who suffered a broken ankle late in the regular season. The shorthanded Kings pushed the series six games behind the strong play of younger players like Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford and Jonathan Quick's 51-save Game 5 performance. Three of the Sharks four wins came in OT, including the series clincher scored by then-Sharks captain Joe Thornton.
Seemingly shedding the reputation as a big game disappointment, Thornton slid across the STAPLES Center ice stopping only for a celebration on the Kings logo.
The Sharks went on to a second consecutive Western Conference Final appearance, this time losing to the Vancouver Canucks.
The following season, The Sharks added to their collection of regular season banners and finished first in the Pacific Division for a fourth consecutive season before losing in the first round to the St. Louis Blues. The Kings struggled during the regular season, but they learned from their previous playoff defeats and went on to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.
In 2013, the Sharks and Kings would face each other in the playoffs again, this time in the second round.
The teams were separated by only two points in the lockout-shortened regular season, and split the season series 2-2. The final game for both teams was a 3-2 Kings win over San Jose, which clinched second place in the Pacific for the Kings and dropped the Sharks to third place.
Despite winning the Stanley Cup in 2012, the image of Joe Thornton celebrating at center ice was still a fresh memory. The series went the full seven games and was closely contested with each team winning each game on home ice. Four of the games were decided by a final score of 2-1.
Thanks to two shutouts from Jonathan Quick and a stellar Game 7 performance by Justin Williams, this time it was the Kings that were celebrating at STAPLES Center.
The next, and most dramatic, chapter in the rivalry was written the following season.
Despite matching up in the opening round of the playoffs, both teams were considered legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. The anticipation for the series was palpable. The Kings held a 3-1-1 record against the Sharks during the regular season - but four of the games were decided by a single goal. As if the rivalry weren't heated enough, Sharks fans had vilified Dustin Brown for knocking forward Tomas Hertl out of the lineup for 45 games with a hit in a December game.
The series figured to be just as tightly contested as the previous season, so it was truly shocking when the Sharks dominated the Kings in the first two games, outscoring them 13-5 and taking a 2-0 lead in the series. The seemingly powerful Kings appeared completely outmatched and outclassed and after losing a close game in OT at STAPLES Center…
It was 3 to 0.
Then, well, everything happened.
The Kings outscored the Sharks 18-5 over the final four games, and became only the fourth team in NHL history to comeback from a 3-0 series defecit. In Games 5 and 7, both in San Jose, the Kings held the Sharks to a single goal.
The following season, the NHL saw fit to give the Sharks a minor chance at redemption by scheduling them as the Kings season-opening opponent.
After watching the Kings raise another Stanley Cup banner, the Sharks shutout the Kings 4-0. Both teams struggled during the season and failed to make the playoffs, postponing the much anticipated rematch between the two clubs.
The 2015-16 season opened with yet another Kings loss to the Sharks, this time a 5-1 defeat at STAPLES Center. Both teams rebounded from the drama and failure of the previous season and qualified for the playoffs. The Kings finished the season with 102 points and a franchise-record 48 wins while the Sharks matched them almost pace for pace with 98 points and 46 wins.
When the Kings and Sharks drew each other as first round opponents, Sharks players insisted that revenge was not a factor. The Sharks had a new captain (Joe Pavelski), a new coach (former Devils head coach Pete DeBoer), and a new goalie (former King Martin Jones). The Kings had hoped acquiring veteran forward Vincent Lecavalier and defenceman Luke Schenn would provide the depth needed to make another deep playoff run. However, a late season injury to Alec Martinez left the Kings even more vulnerable on an already depleted blueline against the aggressive, motivated and speedy Sharks.
The Sharks dominated the Kings for most of the short series, with the only Kings win coming in overtime of Game 3. The Kings made a slight comeback attempt in the second period of Game 5, but the high-powered Sharks responded by slamming the door shut on the Kings season in the third.
Despite insisting prior to the series that it wasn't about revenge, comments by Logan Couture following the win suggested a different interpretation.
"Throughout the last couple of years things have been said by players on that team that to me I take it as disrespectful. It's nice to stick it back to them and beat them in this series," Couture said. "Even in this series someone said on the team they had us right where they wanted us. Wonder if they have us where they want us right now."
Bolstered by their defeat of the Kings, the Sharks went on to dominate the Western Conference and appeared poised to shake off their playoff reputation as a team that could never win when it counted. Veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were sentimental favorites to finally lift the Stanley Cup.
Then they lost to Phil Kessel and a rookie goalie in the Stanley Cup Final.
So here we are again.
Two familiar teams will face off against one another to open yet another season.
Mark Twain once said, "History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends."
The kaleidoscope of hockey history has provided us with a very familiar construction of fragments to open this season indeed.
One team with a new captain seeking to redeem a disappointing playoff performance on the road, another team rewarding their loyal fans by raising another banner to the rafters.
Though the cast is the same, the roles are reversed and of course … it's a completely different kind of banner.