SAN JOSE, Calif. - California's hockey fans - yes, they exist, and yes, they know which end of a Zamboni is up - haven't seen a playoff series between two native teams since 1969.
The San Jose Sharks' upcoming meeting with the Anaheim Ducks just might turn out to be worth the wait.
This long-simmering rivalry finally should reach a full boil when the NHL's best regular-season team from Silicon Valley takes on the still-vital core of Orange County's 2007 Stanley Cup champions in Game 1 Thursday night at the Shark Tank.
Except for its pedestrian first-round setting, every element seems in place to produce a series that could become a landmark in the history of two relatively young franchises.
"It's great to get to play for California, NorCal versus SoCal," Sharks all-star Joe Thornton said. "Now that's fun. That's a rivalry there."
From Montreal-Boston to Colorado-Detroit and several stops in between, Claude Lemieux has been in the thick of the NHL's stormiest rivalries since several players on both teams were toddlers - and the 43-year-old San Jose forward sees a beauty brewing off the West Coast.
"The way I've seen it develop in the past is against teams nearby, and it happens when you play each other several times in a row," Lemieux said. "And the playoffs is always the fire that ignites the rivalry."
For starters, the Sharks and Ducks calmly detest each other in the way only neighbours can. Several years of cheap shots and contentious regular-season games peaked last month when Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov and Ducks star Corey Perry accused each other of dirty play, leading to three brutal late-season games and ending with an after-the-buzzer scrum featuring 64 penalty minutes in Anaheim.
Hockey players don't usually talk about that sort of motivation, but it should become obvious in Game 1 - particularly if both teams dress their respective enforcers, San Jose's Jody Shelley and Anaheim's George Parros.
"Anyone you're going to play in the playoffs, you're going to have bad blood against," Ducks centre Ryan Getzlaf said. "It's not a certain team, it's just the mentality of the whole situation. Everyone is fighting for their lives now."
Not much is similar about the Sharks and Ducks except their driver's licenses. The franchises have dissimilar styles of play, and they're built and coached by people with divergent views about how hockey should be played.
Although the Sharks say they've sharpened their toughness this season under new coach Todd McLellan on the way to the Presidents' Trophy with 117 points, they're still at their best when showing off their speed and offensive skill, from Thornton's passing to Patrick Marleau's finishing skills.
"They were the best team in the league this year," Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller said. "They have a great offence, and they play well on defence. They are a great team, but I think we proved we could play with them. They were always tight games and we won some of them. So I think we have a chance."
And while the Ducks have one of the NHL's most sublimely talented scoring lines with Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, they still identify themselves as a lunch-pail team stocked with hard workers and role players surrounding that top line and defencemen Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer.
"I don't think Anaheim is going to change the way Anaheim plays, and I know we're not," said Marleau, who scored a career-high 38 goals with a plus-16 rating. "The more you play a team, that's where you get the hard feelings, but you can't have an all-out brawl when you play (the Ducks). You've got to take that punch in the head in order to get the winning goal on the power play."
While San Jose slowed down late in the best regular season in franchise history, the Ducks had to scrap just to make the playoffs. They almost seemed out of the race at the trade deadline, when they shipped defensive-minded forward Travis Moen and defenceman Kent Huskins to San Jose in a move they might regret if Moen plays a role in shutting down Anaheim's scorers.
"We've played them three times, so I'm not feeling weird about it," Moen said. "I'll always be proud of what we did to win the Stanley Cup, but now I'm trying to do it again."
Statistically, the series is a mismatch. San Jose scored more goals and allowed fewer than the Ducks; had a better power play and better penalty-killers; and finished 26 points ahead of Anaheim atop the Pacific Division.
But nobody on either bench will care about statistics when bragging rights in California are decided.
"We've been in playoff mode for the last month, that's good," said Ducks defenceman Chris Pronger, who always gets booed every time he touches the puck at the Shark Tank. "It's hard to turn it on and off. We've got to push the gas down even harder now, put our heads down, and try to plow through some tough games, hopefully make a run at it."