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Sharks-Kings series casts spotlight on California kids

by Corey Masisak

LOS ANGELES -- When Matt Nieto watched games during the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, there was a good chance one of his old pals was on the television screen.

Three of Nieto's former teammates with the L.A. Hockey Club, a traveling youth team in Southern California, made their NHL postseason debuts in 2013. Emerson Etem of the Anaheim Ducks, Beau Bennett of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild were all on that big stage a year ago, while Nieto had just completed his junior season at Boston University and signed his first professional contract.

Matt Nieto and Alec Martinez have California hockey roots and are facing each other in the Sharks-Kings series this postseason. (Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/NHLI, Don Smith/NHLI)

Just as Nieto had to wait an extra year to be drafted because of his November birthday, he had to wait a year to join in on the Stanley Cup Playoffs fun. And just as Etem became a surprise star for the Ducks in 2013, Nieto's postseason career is off to a great start with a goal and four points in three games for the San Jose Sharks, who lead the Los Angeles Kings 3-0 in a Western Conference First Round series.

Game 4 takes place Thursday at Staples Center (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS, FS-SW, PRIME).

"I'm feeling comfortable out there," Nieto said. "Obviously the intensity is definitely boosted. I think that fits my game style. I'm a player that likes to play fast. Right now it's working for me."

Nieto is a Southern California kid finding his way in the NHL with its Northern California franchise. Kings defenseman Alec Martinez actually spent two years living in Northern California and a year playing in the Junior Sharks youth program.

The two players are part of a growing number in the NHL who were trained as youth in California. There are likely to be a few more California kids drafted in June, including top-rated North American goaltender Thatcher Demko.

"It's awesome," Nieto said of the increased spotlight on Golden State kids. "It's huge for the state and huge for the young players growing up playing hockey here. You could just look at the standings and see how the California teams are doing. I think it's been great for the hockey programs here."

Nieto grew up in Long Beach, Calif., and he grew up a Kings fan. His path to the NHL started with roller hockey. He played at a local YMCA, and there Nieto met Etem, also from Long Beach.

"I've known him since I was five and we're best friends," Nieto said.

Etem, Bennett and Zucker were all selected in the first 59 picks of the 2010 NHL Draft. Because of his birthdate, Nieto waited a year and became the first California native San Jose has drafted when the Sharks tabbed him at No. 47 in 2011.

After three years of NCAA hockey, Nieto was far from certain to make the Sharks roster in training camp. Aside from a brief demotion to Worcester of the American Hockey League, Nieto not only made the roster but became a regular as a 21-year-old rookie.

"He's had an interesting journey to get here," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "Not the [going to] college and all that type of stuff, but in our eyes as coaches. It began at the summer camp where he had a skill set that was exceptional. We started to take notice. He went to the rookie tournament in Penticton and I had a chance to see him play there and was zeroing in on him. I remember coming back and telling our group that he has a chance. He has the skill set to play, but as a small man he doesn't get knocked off a lot of pucks. Very seldom do you see him picking himself off the ice. It does happen, but not that much for a small man. We thought we had the skill set."

Nieto has moved up and down the lineup, but he's settled in as a wing on the second line with Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau. He had 10 goals and 24 points in the regular season, but already has the four points in his first three playoff games.

"He complements Couture and Marleau with his speed and his ability to make quick plays," McLellan said. "I think as the year has gone on he's felt more and more comfortable there."

Couture said, "He's a smart player. That's a big thing. With his intelligence and his speed on the ice, he knows where to be and he gets there quick. He's good on the forecheck. Him and [Marleau] really complement each other with their speed. They are tough on the team's d-men. They get on top of them and skate so well that they beat them to loose pucks. We've going well for a while now and hopefully it will continue."

Nieto has become a regular as a rookie and excelled in the postseason all while his mother is battling breast cancer. He said his father and sister were at Staples Center for Game 3 on Tuesday, but he hopes his mom will be well enough to join them for a game soon.

It was his first playoff game in the arena he watched his favorite team play in as a kid. That made it a pretty good place for him to score his first career playoff goal.

"It was real special to get my first playoff goal in this building, and it was even more special that I had family in the building," Nieto said.

On the opposite side, Martinez spent most of his childhood in Michigan, but when his father had to come to California for work, he spent eighth and ninth grade living in Danville, a town about 40 miles north of San Jose and about 25 miles east of Oakland.

He made the commute south for hockey to play for the Junior Sharks.

"It was a fun year. We had a good team that year," Martinez said. "I played with [Kings coach Darryl Sutter's] son, Brett. We made it to nationals, and in the championship game we lost to a team from Michigan."

Martinez returned to Michigan after two years. His dad worked for General Motors and had come to California to work in a joint agreement with Toyota, which has a plant in Fremont.

When Martinez and the Kings are in Northern California, he said there are a couple people he tries to catch up with when possible.

"I played for a pretty good coach, Larry Cahn," Martinez said. "He was pretty instrumental to me getting where I am today, and I still keep in touch with him and see him quite a bit. It's a lot easier with playing L.A. He's still up north, but I see him quite a bit."

Martinez and the Kings will try and rally from 3-0 series deficit, something that's only been done three times in League history. If there's going to be a comeback, it starts Thursday.

The task at hand seems improbable, but the first step is simple: Win a hockey game, and earn another trip up north.

"Just growing up, hockey took me to a lot of places," Martinez said. "My dad's job took me to California and Michigan. It was good growing up having that experience."

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