EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — Although Joe Thornton and Dustin Brown might not agree on much else over the next two weeks, both captains believe hockey has never been bigger or better in California, from the thriving youth game all the way to their state's three winning NHL clubs.
The San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings are eager to highlight this renaissance in their second-round playoff series. It's the fourth postseason meeting between Golden State teams, but the first beyond the opening round.
Judging by the rivals' two stacked rosters and the series' high stakes, everything is in place for a California classic.
"It's pretty cool," Thornton said Monday before the Sharks' 45-minute flight south. "Hockey is big out here now. You have a lot of youngsters playing, a lot of older people, too. Hockey is thriving out here in the West."
Starting in the series opener Tuesday night at Staples Center, the defense-first Kings and the skill-laden Sharks will showcase their contrasting styles in pursuit of the same goal: Being the California club in the Western Conference finals for the eighth time in 10 years.
Local rivalries and short travel times are taken for granted in the Eastern Conference, but they're special circumstances in the West. Neither team wants to waste the advantages of brief flights and their large fan contingents in both arenas.
"I think it's a great thing for California to get these two teams in this situation," Brown said at the Kings' training complex. "It's the perfect time for it because of how well hockey is doing. We know what's at stake after what we did last year, and they know it as well."
The Kings nearly ended up with a matchup even closer to home against the Anaheim Ducks, but their local rivals were eliminated Sunday night by Detroit, scuttling the Kings' hopes of traveling by bus to the first postseason Freeway Faceoff. They've still got a familiar local foe — and for the first time in 21 years, Los Angeles gets to start a postseason series at home.
The Kings have won five straight playoff series as the lower-seeded team over the past two seasons, setting an NHL record. Instead, they hope to continue their dominant run at Staples Center, where they've won 10 straight since March — including a 3-2 win in the regular season finale on April 27, securing the fifth seed by finishing two points ahead of San Jose.
"We're getting into that groove," Los Angeles center Anze Kopitar said. "We had a slow start, but the last few games are a good indication of what we can do. We're familiar with them from so many years. We know what they bring and what they can do, and they know what we want to do, so I think it should be a fun series to see who can do it better."
Los Angeles is amply wary of the Sharks, who are just one series away from their third Western Conference finals appearance in four years. Both teams won four straight to close out their first-round series, although San Jose swept Vancouver while Los Angeles dropped its first two games before rolling through hard-nosed St. Louis.
"I don't know if it will be as physical," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said of the upcoming series. "They have some guys that will be physical, but I don't think they have as many guys that will work as hard as guys that were on St. Louis. At the same time, I think this team has a lot more skill and a lot more high-profile players, so it will be just as tough to win this series, too."
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