NHL expects Sharks-Kings sellout at Levi’s

LEVI’S STADIUM — Levi’s Stadium looked more like an unfinished construction job than a hockey arena on Tuesday afternoon.

In the center of the field was a blank hockey rink, with construction crews spraying water to form an unnatural ice surface in advance of Saturday’s NHL Stadium Series matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings at the home of the San Francisco 49ers.

Back-and-forth they went, hundreds of times, in order for the ice to freeze more evenly for an NHL-quality playing surface. By the time they finish, around 10,000 gallons of water will be used, and then about 350 gallons of paint will be applied to whiten the surface.

Logos and other markings – lines, creases, faceoff circles – also need to be painted on. Spraying water and painting will be the routine until the ice reaches two inches of thickness.

Toward one end zone sat a black, circular stage, surrounded by lights that set off a purple glow when lit. The musical performers haven’t been announced yet, but there will be pregame festivities and musical performances before the game outside the stadium.

Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay

Toward the other end zone were blue tarps, other equipment, and a giant pad containing a Sharks logo.

The rest of the field, strewn with construction workers, was full of paraphernalia that will be part of the décor and make up the topography of California surrounding the ice – the ocean, the grass, the mountains – all constructed from scratch.

It was quite a scene – especially from a bird’s-eye view – an operation that requires 200 pairs of hands, working on transforming a football stadium into a world-class hockey rink for a mere 60-minute game.

Yet, a lot rides on this game, not just for the NHL and the crew that spent painstaking hours building a rink out of 52,000 feet of plywood, but also for the two teams playing in the marquee event.

Strip away the fanfare, the hype and theatrics that come with playing outdoors, and the game would still be significant. The Sharks and Kings are heading in opposite directions – the Sharks, losers of seven of their last nine, clinging on to the final playoff spot in the West, while the Kings, winners of five straight, are hot on their tails.

The Sharks, with 66 points, remain two ahead of the Kings, but if the teams’ respective trends continue, San Jose could be on the outside looking in on the playoffs by the time the puck drops on Saturday.

San Jose is a team that needs answers, and quickly.

The Sharks have allowed four or more goals in five of their last six games, all losses. They have dropped their last five home games, and own the third lowest win-total at home in the conference. They have been outscored their last two games against the Lightning and Predators by a combined score of 10-3 despite outshooting both teams, 78-70 overall.

Not since the 2005-2006 season have the Sharks been in a worse position through 59 games, and at this rate, they will finish worse than that team.

The Kings, meanwhile, have seemingly awoken from a Stanley Cup hangover that went on longer than expected. After a mediocre start, Los Angeles is on the up-and-up, winners of five straight. They beat the Lightning at home on Monday, the same Lightning team that crushed the Sharks the night before at SAP Center.

It was just three weeks ago that the Sharks had won three straight games against tough opponents – the Kings, Ducks, and Blackhawks – while the Kings were in the midst of dropping seven of eight games to fall a full nine points behind the Sharks in the standings.

But now, with that gap been narrowed to just two, the Sharks know all too well about the Kings’ uncanny ability to turn on the jets at the right time.

The memories have not entirely passed, it seems.

In 2013, Jonathan Quick stood on his head and the Sharks were turned away in Game 7 of the conference seminfinals. Last year, the Sharks suffered a collapse of epic proportions to the Kings, watching a 3-0 series lead evaporate and disappear in another Game 7.

The Kings scored four unanswered goals in a 5-1 victory, then went on to beat both the Ducks and Blackawks in – you guessed it – seven game series before dispatching the Rangers to win their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.

If the Kings are capable of succeeding under such dire circumstances, doing it time and time again, then out-battling the Sharks for a playoff spot with 26 games remaining should not be a worry for the defending champions.

Unless the Sharks give them a reason to fret, starting Saturday night.

The Kings have been on cruise control all season, winning just enough to stay in the race, and now they are playing their best hockey of the season with all the pieces coming together. There is virtually no pressure on them on Saturday, at least not compared to the daunting task facing the Sharks.

Not only is it a rivalry game against the team that knocked them out of the playoffs two straight years, but it is also a Stadium Series event, the signature game of the season, played in front of their home crowd with the national spotlight on them.

If the Sharks lose, it won’t be just another defeat; it will be yet another blow dealt by the hated team down south, a blow that will be their sixth straight home loss and fan the flames on a disappointing season, one that might end with them out of the playoffs for the first time in a decade.

Yet, a win would do wonders for a team that, despite its recent troubles, is still very much in the hunt for a playoff spot. Winning a high-intensity, high-octane, outdoor game in front of 68,500 fans – the NHL is expecting a sellout – could lift the spirits of the stagnant, sluggish Sharks.

Saturday could re-ignite the engines toward a late-season push and set them up well for an upcoming stretch where they will play seven of eight games at SAP Center before embarking on a brutal seven-game Eastern road trip. It’s safe to say the Sharks must capitalize on the next month of home games, or else that late March road trip could spell doom.

So, Saturday night’s tilt will be more than just a game for a multitude of reasons, from the once-in-a-lifetime experience to the playoff implications of two rival teams.

The Sharks, like the playing surface at Levi’s Stadium, remain an unfinished job. Whether their construction succeeds or comes crumbling down is yet to be determined, but a key test comes Saturday night, in front of the entire hockey world.