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Sharks and Kings Keeping it Interesting

(Originally published at Sports Radio Service)

With arch rivals and married couples, the key to a thriving relationship is continuing to surprise each other. The party line between professional sports teams, of course, is that with all the history and scouting and preparation, neither team will be able to surprise the other. But if that were true they wouldn’t have to play the game, would they?

Can there be any surprises between the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings? No, said Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic before Game One between San Jose and Los Angeles:

There’ll be no surprises out there. Played enough against each other in that past couple years, last year in the playoffs, three years ago in the playoffs, so not surprising at all.

Of the kind of surprises you expect to see in a game, Vlasic said:

You can surprise them by the way you come out and play. But surprises as in we don’t know what they’re gonna do and they don’t know what we’re gonna do. No, we know LA in here, they know us, well enough to know there’s no surprises out there. But the team that comes out and dictates the game will have the advantage off the start.

Seems like Vlasic predicted the game pretty accurately. Still… if there were no surprises they would not play the games. Some surprises are to be expected in any game, especially NHL playoff games.

I imagine the Los Angeles Kings were at least a little surprised to see Vlasic rushing up the ice on a very scary (for LA) short-handed chance. Later, his shot off the post landed right in Raffi Torres’ lap, so to speak, for the game winner. I think those might be called surprises. That last one had to be a little difficult to plan.

Before Game One, Kings’ head coach Darryl Sutter was asked if the Sharks could do anything to surprise the Kings:

I don’t think system-wise, neither team is going to do that because of how good they are. There’s a reason you get here, there’s a reason that you have such good regular seasons, there’s a reason that you have playoffs spots clinched with a few games left.

What happens in playoff time, a lot of time what separates winner or loser is not the team part of it, it’s the individual part of it. So there’s somebody that steps up and goes to another level or somebody that doesn’t, that’s usually at the end, what… when you call it a surprise or whatever that is, that’s usually what happens.

We have already seen some game results that were not widely anticipated. Detroit defeating Boston was only expected by those who knew the Red Wings’ speed was a better weapon against the Bruins than it would have been against the Penguins. Still, there’s a little David and Goliath going on there. And it was still a one-goal game.

Which brings me to the most unsurprising surprise of the playoffs so far: that the Sharks were one of just two teams to win Game One by a margin of more than one goal. That a game would turn out differently than anticipated is not surprising, but for the Kings to be so badly run over by the Sharks in the first two periods was unusual.

Dan Boyle’s pregame comments described what the Sharks expected in Game One, in particular from the Kings goaltender:

With Quick back there, you’ve certainly got to earn your goals…We don’t expect to score many goals. We’d like to but we’re going to have to play good defense.

So scoring six goals, only one into an empty net, was surprising.

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Tomas Hertl celebrates his first NHL Playoff goal. (From NHL.com)

Tomas Hertl scoring in his first playoff game was to count as a little surprising, especially after missing so much of the season getting his knee repaired.

The third period was not surprising, since a team hardly ever maintains momentum with a five-goal lead. It seems like it should be surprising, but if a two or three goal lead is dangerous, what does a five goal lead do to a team? Such a thing in the playoffs must be unsettling.

It would be folly to expect a repeat of any of that. The Kings will probably be more ready to start, and the Sharks are unlikely to face the mental challenge of another dizzying lead.

Game One might have given the Sharks a bigger advantage than the series lead. It gave Tomas Hertl and Raffi Torres a chance to get up to game speed, maybe even playoff game speed. Those are weapons the Kings probably didn’t want the Sharks to prime.

Todd McLellan opted to play Mike Brown and not have Martin Havlat in the lineup. Havlat is not a natural fit on the fourth line, but Brown was not especially helpful there either. Maybe, probably, McLellan will surprise us Sunday. He does have a few options to work with. But which would be more surprising, changing a lineup that won, or sticking with one that perhaps could be improved on?

Both teams will put Game One behind them Sunday, and perhaps they will serve up something even more predictably surprising.

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