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Sharks gear up for series with Kings

by Eric Gilmore
The last time the San Jose Sharks faced Los Angeles, they drubbed their Southern California rival 6-1 at HP Pavilion and clinched the Pacific Division crown in their sixth and final meeting of the regular season.

As it turned out, the Sharks and Kings will meet again this year – at least four times – in a first-round Western Conference playoff series.

The second-seeded Sharks own the home-ice advantage over the seventh-seeded Kings and will host the first two games – the times and dates of those games will be announced Sunday night.

This marks the first postseason matchup between the Sharks and Kings, and it wasn’t set until Chicago lost to Detroit on Sunday.

"Obviously we know a lot about each other, playing six times throughout the course of the year," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said Sunday during a conference call. "It's going to be a real competitive series. We know them well. They play hard each and every night, and they're really stingy defensively. It's going to be an exciting series and a great series for California hockey in general."

The Sharks and Kings met twice during the final 18 days of the regular season. Los Angeles triumphed 4-3 at home in a shootout on March 24, and the Sharks routed the Kings 6-1 at home on April 4.

"It's just nice to know who you're going to play," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "It gives us an opportunity now to prepare. I think each of the teams that is in the playoffs presents a different challenge, whether it's goaltending, power play, penalty kill, whatever it might be, and now we can start to focus in on the L.A. challenge."

McLellan reported some positive news on the injury front. Left wing Ryane Clowe, who missed the final three regular-season games with a lower body injury, will return to practice Monday.

"We fully expect him to play in Game 1," McLellan said.

The Sharks certainly can't complain about their first-round match-up. If Chicago had earned one point Sunday morning instead of losing 4-3 in regulation to Detroit, the Sharks would be opening against the Blackhawks. Last season Chicago swept the Sharks 4-0 in the Western Conference final and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

San Jose also avoided a first-round series against Anaheim, thanks to a late-season surge by the Ducks. Two years ago, the Ducks stunned top-seeded San Jose 4-2 in the first round, outscoring the Sharks 18-10.

If the four top-seeded teams – Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit and Anaheim -- all win their first-round series, the Sharks would face Detroit in the second round. Last season, San Jose beat the Red Wings 4-1 in the semifinals.

The Sharks went 3-1-2 against Los Angeles this season with two losses coming in shootouts. The Sharks won’t have to worry about shootouts in the playoffs, and they’ll also face a Kings team that will be without injured center Anze Kopitar, who leads the team with 73 points. He suffered a season-ending ankle injury late last month. The Kings could also be without injured forward Justin Williams, who has 57 points. He's missed the past nine games with a dislocated shoulder but might be able to play with the aid of a shoulder harness.

McLellan was asked if he'd have to warn his team about taking the Kings too lightly with Kopitar out.

"I don't think we have to have that conversation at all," McLellan said. "You can throw Williams in there. I don't know if he'll play or not. They're two tremendous players that make a huge difference on their team, but in my opinion – I don't know how others think of the Kings – but I think they're a very committed team as well.

"They're very solid defensively, they've got an elite group of players that work together and play really good defensively. Their goaltender (Jonathan Quick) is tremendous, and their penalty killing is exceptional. So they already have a strong identity that they can play to, and when you lose a couple of your real good offensive players others tend to pick up the slack …. and I think we’ll see that from them."

Last year the Sharks got off to a slow start but came back to beat Colorado 4-2 in the first round. Then they defeated Detroit in five games, advancing to the Western Conference final for the first time since 2004 against Calgary, the only other time they got that far.

Thornton said last year's deep run in the playoffs could help the Sharks' mindset this year.

"You want to get back there. I think we realize we have a good team and you realize how much work it is just to get to that point and still you're not at the ultimate goal," Thornton said. "We know how much you've got to go through. We're just that much more experienced, and I think we're even hungrier now to get to that point. …  You've got to take it one game at a time and don't look too far ahead. And hopefully that experience will help us this year."

McLellan said it's too early to tell whether this year's team will be more relaxed entering the playoffs after winning two series last year.

"I'll get a better indication of that tomorrow when we practice and when we meet for the first time since we know our opponent. I think a little bit of anxiety and a little bit nervousness and a little bit of tension is good for our team. We don't want to go into it completely relaxed. We have to understand the urgency, but also our experience last year of finding a resiliency to get through that first round, we may need to rely on that a little bit at some point."

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