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Sharks and Kings Take Playoff Battle Outdoors

by Staff Writer / San Jose Sharks

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Since arriving in the NHL in 2009, San Jose Sharks center Logan Couture has watched 16 other teams play in outdoor games, some twice, all the while wishing and hoping he would one day get a chance to do what they were doing.

He gets that chance Saturday night at Levi's Stadium, and he couldn't ask for a bigger moment in the season to have it happen.

"It's more than just a hockey game," Couture said, "It's a massive hockey game."

He's spot on.

Everything about the 2015 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game Saturday night between the Sharks and Los Angeles Kings (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, TVA2) is different and bigger and brighter, except what's at stake.

It's still about two points, and no matter the atmosphere, the spectacle, the uniqueness of the event, and the once-in-a-lifetime experience factor, that's really all that matters to the Sharks and Kings at this point in the season. That's because two points are all that separates them from being in position for a Stanley Cup Playoff berth and being on the outside looking in.

The Sharks are in today with 68 points in 60 games; the Kings are out with 66 points in 57 games. A regulation win on Saturday will put the Kings in the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference and push the Sharks outside the playoff picture.

Never before has the NHL held an outdoor game that had the potential to affect the standings the way this game does. It's the first time two rivals competing for a playoff spot have met outdoors this late in the season.

"This is the biggest game of the season for us," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "We're battling for a playoff spot and that's all we're worried about right now is making the playoffs, and right now they're in our way of making that jump."

The Sharks feel fortunate to get to this game fresh off a 5-2 road win against the Dallas Stars on Thursday. It was a stop-the-bleeding win for the woefully inconsistent Sharks, who had lost their previous two games and five of their previous six.

"It just made today better," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said after practice Friday. "When we woke up we felt a little better about ourselves and we could enjoy the day without a loss on our minds, and right now that's important for us."

The Kings are riding a six-game winning streak into the Stadium Series game, but considering where they were coming from all it has done is get them to within striking distance of a playoff spot. Prior to the winning streak, the Kings had lost three in a row and 12 of 15 games (3-7-5).

"We're working a lot harder and smarter, and emotionally we're there," Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin said. "We know what's at stake. We're a more desperate team right now, and we're beating other teams playing our way."

So that brings the Sharks and Kings to Saturday, to game day at Levi's Stadium, which brings up the concept of finding balance between taking it all in and focusing on the importance of the game.

The Kings feel they might have an advantage because they've been through this before. They played in a Stadium Series game last year at Dodger Stadium, where they were the home team against the Anaheim Ducks. They lost 3-0.

"It's obviously a little different because we've been through it," Muzzin said. "Last year was a little more exciting. I mean, we're still excited, but we understand what's at stake. The two points is what we need at the end of the night. Minus all the fans and hoopla, we need the two points."

The Sharks get the advantage of being the home team and thus sleeping in their own beds Friday night. But they are going through this for the first time and, like the Kings last season, they have been dealing with the outside distractions such as securing enough tickets for all the family and friends they have in town.

The players were hoping to have all of that taken care of before they went to bed Friday, because when they wake up Saturday they know they have to stop being sons and fathers and uncles and cousins and friends so they can become professional hockey players with a job to do.

"Today was a day for the families," Couture said following practice Friday. "Tomorrow is a day for this hockey team to go out and win."

The Sharks have done that twice in three games against the Kings this season, but it hardly makes up for what happened to them in the playoffs last season, when they blew a 3-0 lead in the Western Conference First Round and lost in seven games.

A win Saturday won't change anything about their historic collapse or serve as any type of retribution or revenge, but it will go a long toward securing a playoff berth this season and, potentially, keeping the Kings out of the postseason.

"When the puck drops, they're wearing black, white and silver, and we've got the teal on, and we're going to battle," McLellan said. "The players are intelligent people; they know where we are in the standings and they know how few games are left in the season. We only have 22 games left so it's an important night for us."

It's also one they'll never forget, regardless of the outcome. That's important too, but not as important as the win. The Kings can attest to that, considering their memories of the Stadium Series game last season at Dodger Stadium are bittersweet at best.

"Bad because we lost 3-0," Kings center Jarret Stoll said. "It was very cool playing in Dodger Stadium with all the history, but this year we just want to play well and win. Looking around at how big the stadium is, it's not a huge deal to us. We just want to play well and win. That's it."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

Author: Dan Rosen | Senior Writer

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