LOS ANGELES – The final game of the regular season had the wind taken out of its sails right just prior to faceoff.
Home ice advantage in the first round was not possible, thanks to the St. Louis Blues’ win over Chicago earlier Saturday, so the Sharks and Kings were playing to determine which was seeded five and which was six. One team would face the surging Blues, while the other would take on the Northwest Division winning Vancouver Canucks.
The Kings took a mostly meaningless 3-2 win and will begin the postseason in St. Louis. The Sharks will start in Vancouver.
“I felt the intensity of the game was not quite where it would have been had one of these two teams had that opportunity to clinch home ice,” Todd McLellan said.
Joe Thornton was asked how much incentive there was to win the game, and how much of an importance was placed on not getting hurt before the playoffs begin.
“A little bit of both,” said the captain. “You want to win every game we play, but you don’t want to get hurt. We tried our best. They were better than us. But, now we know who we’re going to play, and we’re going to go up to Van and win some games.”
A case can be made that the Sharks match up better against the Canucks than they do against St. Louis, which knocked them out of the postseason last April in five games. San Jose won all three games of the season series against Vancouver in 2013, so a loss in the season finale in Los Angeles could be viewed as beneficial.
San Jose still has many players on its roster that vividly remember Kevin Bieksa’s strange goal in double overtime in the Western Conference final in 2011, ending the Sharks’ season.
Logan Couture said: “The first thing that comes to mind playing Vancouver is what happened a couple years ago. It’s going to be fun going up to Canada, starting the playoffs there, and I know we’re all excited.”
“It’s a tough city to play in,” Antti Niemi said. “We lost two years ago, and remembering those games, they were a little lucky, they got a few lucky goals. Hopefully, we’ll get a few bounces this time.”
Couture downplayed the regular season success against Vancouver, which was missing star forward Ryan Kesler in all three games.
“Playoffs are a whole different story,” Couture said.
Despite the two losses in Phoenix and Los Angeles to close out the regular season, the Sharks concluded by playing some of their better hockey. Starting with a game in Anaheim on March 25, San Jose was 12-5-1 in its final 18 matches.
“We closed out the season well,” McLellan said. “I don’t look at just the last two games as our ending point. We played very well down the stretch when we had to, and won some real big games.”
Niemi and Couture were the Sharks’ two best and most consistent players in the shortened 48-game season.
Couture finished with a team-leading 21 goals, including a spectacular marker on Saturday, when he split defenders Rob Scuderi and Slava Voynov and beat Jonathan Quick with a wrist shot to tie the game at 1-1 in the second period.
The 24-year-old also centered a line that, on most nights down the stretch, was playing against the opposition’s best players. It won that battle more often than not.
“It was a good year. I felt good about my game for the majority of the year, and felt like I was consistent,” Couture said. “That’s something that I wanted to do coming into this year and continue to do as a player, improve in that sense. Scoring goals is a part of my game, so getting 21 this year is fun.”
Couture has been mentioned as a possible Selke Trophy candidate, too, although it's probably a long shot.
“I like playing both ends of the ice, and lately we’ve been matched up against the other team’s top lines,” he said. “I enjoy coming to the rink knowing that we’re going to do that. It’s been a fun run lately.”
Niemi, chosen as the team’s MVP in the regular season home finale, finished tied for the league lead in wins with 24. His 2.16 goals-against average and .924 save percentage could make him a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender.
“He’s been great,” Thornton said. “He’s the reason we’re in the postseason. When you’ve got a great goaltender like that, you can ride him a long time.”
The journey begins next week in Vancouver.
“They compete hard. They won the Northwest for a reason," Thornton said. "They've got a real good team, and we’ve got a big challenge on our hands.”