It may be the truest measure of the San Jose Sharks’ hammer-to-head 2014-2015 season that they could hold their first outdoor game ever against their archest of rivals in front of a crowd roughly four times the size of its standard arena crowd, lose, and be booed off the grounds.
I mean, it’s a storm close enough to perfect to mirror the year just besmirched by their temporary landlords, the San Francisco 49ers. The Sharks, losers of seven of their last nine and the second-worst home team of the 16 playoff-position teams, are facing the two-time Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, who have won their last five to eradicate much of their previous 25-game freefall (7-11-7).
The Sharks look like a ridiculously inconsistent season has caved in upon itself. The Kings look like they have begun their bold march to Repeatville. It is a potential boot right to the local team’s already vulnerable nethers, a bad end for the locals that, were it to happen, would be colossally worse than any achieved by any of the other 19 teams ever to engage in this rolling festival.
The NHL has carefully handpicked its teams for the previous 15 Heritage/Winter/Stadium outdoor games, in that only eight of the 30 teams didn’t make the playoffs in the year it played outside. The Heritage Series, which is just for Canadian teams, is mostly an homage to the nation that made hockey, and Canadians being Canadians, everyone went home satisfied. The Winter Classic, which has been reserved almost entirely for American teams, has had only two teams miss the postseason -- Buffalo in ’08 and Toronto in ’14 -- but because the weather was both picturesque and wretched in both games, everyone morphed it into a magnificent test of holiday endurance.
This, though, is the Stadium Series, which is the third and least appealing of the three in that it is the last to be conceived and designed to scoop up teams that wouldn’t otherwise be covered by Heritage or Winter. Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose are neither Canadian nor wintry cities, but the Ducks and Sharks are the shiniest examples of Gary Bettman’s otherwise failed strategy of rampant American expansion, and Minnesota (another expansion team) and Colorado (transplanted from unfashionable Quebec) are in the 2016 rotation with the last Canadian NHL city, Winnipeg.
But enough history. We know how the kids hate anything that happened as far back as three years, and we want to fake being contemporary.
The Kings-Sharks dynamic, though, is an odd one. It is closer to an actual two-sided rivalry than Giants-Dodgers, or Warriors-Lakers, but the Kings have two Cups and the Sharks have never even played for one, a truth the Kings never fail to amuse themselves mentioning, as is their right.
Worse for San Jose, their team’s mythical opportunity window is almost certainly narrower than it once was, and may be closing outright. Worse still, having vomited up the Kings series back in April, the Sharks are following that with the very real possibility that they could not even make the tournament for the first time since 2003 and the second time in 17 seasons.
So the question must be asked: How bad a mood can the fans take into the stadium Saturday night? There won’t be snow, which always pleases people who don’t live in it regularly. There isn’t likely to be a fight, although there have been three in outside history, the first ever involving the noted Gandhi disciple Dan Carcillo. The rage that the two can build for each other isn’t likely to generate in an open-air building, and the fans will be too far away to create background noise -- especially given the Levi’s Library.
San Jose needs all the intensity it can muster, because the Sharks traditionally have done their best work when being chased by the Rottweiler of failure. When comfortable or self-satisfied, they essentially stink, and this has been true for most of the last decade.
And in a building that does not naturally or easily amplify crowd noise because of its laid-back architecture, the 70,000-some-odds in the stadium will have to set off a low-yield nuclear device to overcome the acoustics, the ennui and the Sharks’ general motivational shortcomings. Which, if the Sharks perform as they have the past 10 days, can surely be done.
And the Kings? They’re used to living on an edge, and there is no edge edgier than Darryl Sutter living with a camera crew for weeks at a time, as both teams have in preparation for this game.
In short, this will likely be a very tough evening for the home team unless it can find the value in being threatened with not only national embarrassment but loud local revulsion. As the 49ers will tell you, 70,000 unhappy customers can make a hell of a foul racket if you screw up their Sundays badly enough, so the Sharks cannot say they haven’t been told -- eight or nine hundred times.