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Sharks aim to ruin Kings' special night

by Dan Rosen

LOS ANGELES -- Even if they wanted to try, the San Jose Sharks can't avoid it now.

High above their heads when the puck drops on the Sharks' 2014-15 season Wednesday at Staples Center against the Los Angeles Kings (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN, SN1) will be a new Stanley Cup championship banner that for all intents and purposes could have been theirs.

The Sharks would have at least had as good a shot as any team had they avoided a historical collapse.

"Any time I think of the Kings or our team thinks of the Kings we remember what happened last year," Sharks center Logan Couture said. "The memory of last year will still be pretty fresh for a lot of guys."

One win in four games. That's all the Sharks needed against the Kings in the Western Conference First Round last spring. One win to knock the Kings out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, to avoid being known as chokers, as the butt of too many jokes. One win to advance, to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. They had a good one too.

They had beaten the Kings three straight times and won the regular-season series against every other team that advanced past the first round in the Western Conference (Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild). But everything fell apart.

Four straight losses by a combined 18-5 ruined the Sharks last season and sent the organization into a self-proclaimed rebuild this past summer to get younger and to change the leadership hierarchy on the roster.

They did all that, but that doesn't erase what happened this past April. Now that they're back in Los Angeles, back where the first of four blows was struck, where everything that seemed so right started to go historically wrong, they can't avoid the memories even if they tried.

The good thing is the Sharks aren't trying. They're excited about opening the season in Los Angeles. Waiting to try to attack this demon, this nightmare that hasn't gone away yet, would have been much harder to deal with. Getting a chance on opening night is an opportunity.

"You're given the chance to ruin their festivities," Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said.

More than anything, the Sharks get an early chance to issue a stern shut the heck up to everyone who has doubted them since their royal collapse. And they know there are a lot of doubters.

"Maybe it's the first year that nobody expects San Jose to win in the playoffs," Vlasic said. "Maybe that's a good thing."

As much as they try to keep everything that is said outside the dressing room, it's impossible not to hear the noise and be somewhat affected by it.

Couture and Vlasic quickly came to the defense of maligned stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, who have taken more heat for the Sharks meltdown last season than any other player, even from their own bosses.

Thornton had the 'C' stripped off his sweater, Marleau the 'A'. There were rumors that they were being dangled for trades, even though they signed three-year contract extensions last season that included no-trade clauses.

"The talk that Jumbo [Thornton] and Patty would get traded was to me just invented because if you really think about it they just signed three-year deals, have no-trade clauses, and are two of our best players," Vlasic said. "Realistically people should have just thought it's not going to happen. It didn't, and I didn't think it would."

Added Couture: "Those guys are looked up to by a lot of players in the dressing room and they mean a lot to the organization and to the guys in the dressing room."

Many of those guys in the dressing room are young, some are new. The Sharks have been criticized for not upgrading the roster during the offseason -- defensemen Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart left via free agency -- but the point of that was to get younger.

Mirco Mueller, San Jose's first-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, is taking one of the spots on defense vacated by Boyle and Stuart. He's 19. Brent Burns is moving back to defense to take the other. They will likely start the season as partners.

Forwards Tomas Hertl (20), Chris Tierney (20), Barclay Goodrow (21) and Matt Nieto (21) are on the team. Hertl should start on a line with Thornton and Joe Pavelski. Nieto should start on a line with Couture and Marleau.

"We did change the personnel; we got younger," Couture said. "Some of the young kids that came into this camp this year really stepped up and showed that they're ready to play in the NHL. Last year, Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto brought the excitement every single day to guys that have been around the League for 15 or 16 years. We still have those two young guys and we have a couple more young guys who have made the team. I think they're going to help us move in the right direction."

It won't be easy. The Kings already showed them that.

Los Angeles beat the Sharks 4-1 in a preseason game on Sept. 30. Couture said it was a wakeup call even though the Sharks used only part of their NHL roster in the game while the Kings had everyone but Marian Gaborik, Jarret Stoll and Jeff Carter.

"They beat us pretty badly," Couture said. "It was 4-1, but the score really didn't show how the game went. They were a lot better than us. They woke a lot of us up. It really sent the message that it's time to get going."

They shouldn't need another wakeup call when they walk into Staples Center. The banner hanging above their heads should be enough.

There's no avoiding it now, so there's no reason to try.

"You can say so much off the ice," Vlasic said, "but if you go on the ice and show it then you can shut everybody up."


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