SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Jonathan Quick made a save and pumped his glove as the final horn sounded. Drew Doughty gave him a hug. The Los Angeles Kings patted heads, high-fived and started to leave the ice as if they had played in any old rink, not Levi’s Stadium.
As fireworks blasted into the sky, a few had to be called back to salute the announced crowd of 70,205, third-largest in NHL history. Even then, coach Darryl Sutter kept on walking – through the landscaping, down the tunnel, on to the next game.
To the Kings, Saturday night’s 2-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks was not about the spectacle. It was about business.
They have won two of the last three Stanley Cups. They hosted the first NHL outdoor game in California last season at Dodger Stadium. This did not compare.
And two weeks ago, they had four teams between them and a playoff spot. Now they have won seven straight and moved past the Sharks and into third place in the Pacific Division.
“We’re kind of used to it,” Doughty said. “I think the guys kind of had fun. It’s a cool experience. But at the same time, it’s better just playing at Staples or something like that.”
Better just playing at Staples Center in L.A.?
“We didn’t want this to be a distraction,” Doughty said. “We needed two points. This game was huge for us. It was huge for them.”
A distraction? Not a tribute to the game’s roots? Not a celebration of the game’s growth? Not a memory of a lifetime?
Asked for his highlight of the weekend, Sharks coach Todd McLellan said: “Probably the family participation.” Hey, it was the Sharks’ first NHL outdoor game. Only two San Jose players had appeared in an NHL outdoor game before. They brought lots of family and friends.
The Kings brought lots last year, too. They didn’t this year. When they had their family skate after practice Friday night, the ice was nearly empty. Captain Dustin Brown said he brought only one cousin – and the cousin lived in the area. Defenseman Jake Muzzin said he brought no one.
“It wasn’t a big deal for the team,” Muzzin said.
The weather Saturday was gorgeous, in the 70s during the day, 57 degrees at faceoff. Fans tailgated – something they can’t do at the SAP Center in San Jose – grilling, drinking and playing street hockey. They jammed the fan festival and listened to a live band. They watched Sharks alumni line up for intros – Owen Nolan, Igor Larionov, Mike Ricci and more – and singer Kris Allen perform. They roared as the teams entered the stadium, the scene decorated like Northern California topography, complete with a replica ocean and fake shark fins.
The NHL has held 15 stadium games. The road team has won 11 times. It stands to reason that the home team gets caught up in the moment or in trying to put on a show, while the road team is more free to just play. It stands to reason that an inexperienced team is at an even greater disadvantage.
Kyle Clifford gave the Kings a 1-0 lead on a deflection just 2:46 into the first period. The Kings dominated early, prepared for the strange setting and the suspect ice. The Sharks looked awful.
“I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a couple of times where guys were slow jumping on the ice because maybe their eyes were wandering, maybe their minds were wandering,” McLellan said. “But that’s human.”
The Sharks adjusted and improved. Brent Burns tied the game late in the first period, and the fans got into it. They watched John Fogerty perform during the first intermission. They watched the Sharks carry the play in the second period. They chanted, “BEAT L.A.!” When the Kings took a penalty, ominous “Jaws” music played, and the fans did the shark chomp. During the second intermission, Melissa Etheridge entertained the crowd.
But the Sharks turned over a puck early in the third period. Marian Gaborik flew up the left wing and ripped a shot from the top of the left circle, just as defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic closed on him with an outstretched stick. It rocketed past goaltender Antti Niemi. That was all L.A. would need.
The Kings, man. They torment the Sharks. They eliminated them from the playoffs each of the last two years – coming back from a 3-0 deficit in the first round last year and setting off a tumultuous offseason in San Jose. Now they spoiled their party and knocked them out of a playoff spot. They wore white pants but black hats.
They also put themselves in holes time and time again, only to crawl out. They became the first team to win the Cup as an eighth seed in 2012. They became the first team to win three seven-game series to make the Cup final last year – and won all three Game 7s on the road. They won seven times when facing elimination, the most ever for a Cup winner. They played 26 playoff games, the most ever for a Cup winner.
Before this winning streak, they were in a 2-6-4 funk. This is what they do.
“There’s never, ever been any doubt within this room,” said captain Dustin Brown. “I think a lot of the doubt and a lot of ‘Are we going to make the playoffs?’ was coming from outside the room. In saying that, where we are now, we still have a lot of work to do. We’ve put ourselves in a better situation coming down the stretch, but there’s still a lot of hockey to be played.”
The rest of it will be played indoors.
“I’ve enjoyed both of [the outdoor games],” Brown said, “but I think two is enough for me.”
Two is enough?
“It’s an exciting game,” Brown said. “But I think our personality as a group of guys in here, we’re pretty low-key. This is the other end of the spectrum.”
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