LEVI’S STADIUM – Under clear blue skies against a spectacular backdrop of California sun, the Sharks held their lone practice Friday afternoon before Saturday night’s Stadium Series game against the Los Angeles Kings.
Whatever exhaustion the Sharks had from landing in San Jose at 2:30 in the morning quickly turned to giddy excitement as they stepped onto the ice at Levi’s Stadium approximately 13 hours later.
Even if they had this game circled well in advance, the Sharks were still in awe once they hit the ice. Said Tommy Wingels:
“The whole experience and production the NHL and the Sharks put on here is – I’m at a loss for words for it. From following on social media over the past couple of days to coming here and seeing it firsthand and experiencing it, it’s really, really cool.”
Asked if he could imagine what Saturday night will feel like with a sellout crowd in excess of 69,000 expected, Matt Nieto was also unable to picture it:
“I can’t right now. Just looking up in the stands, there are a lot of seats. It will be pretty crazy. It’s the biggest attendance a lot of us have played in front of.”
It will be the first time that all of the Sharks but two – forward Tyler Kennedy and defenseman Scott Hannan — will participate in an NHL outdoor game. Kennedy has played in two Winter Classics (2008 and 2011) with the Penguins, and Hannan played against Kennedy in the 2011 game with the Capitals.
Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay
“These events are great for fans and players. It’s something you don’t get to experience in a normal day-to-day routine. Just the setting when you walk out – how many fans there are – it’s just great. I think everyone should get a chance to play in a game like this.”
After a brief practice and a chance for the players to skate with their families, the Sharks entered their temporary locker room – the 49ers’ locker room, an expansive oasis that seems at least twice as large as any NHL dressing room – and they remained in awe.
Tomas Hertl could not contain his excitement:
“I couldn’t wait to skate today. Just seeing the locker room, it’s unbelievable. Everything’s so big, so nice. Everything is new. I can’t wait for tomorrow because it’s 70,000 people.”
All the fanfare and build-up will be for naught if the Sharks fall to the Kings on Saturday. The Sharks are locked in a tight playoff race, tied with Calgary for third in the division with 68 points.
If the postseason began Saturday, they would occupy the second wild card spot in the West. But they are just a point ahead of the Wild and two points ahead of the Kings, who have played two fewer games.
Which makes it all the more important for the Sharks to come away with two points against the Kings, Stadium Series game or not.
Head coach Todd McLellan knows both teams will have a different mentality on Saturday:
“Tomorrow’s going to be a much different day than today. Today was a celebration really when you think about it. Tomorrow the focus will come back for both teams, not just for us. And when the puck drops you know they’re wearing black, white and silver, and we have the teal and our colors on, and we’re going to battle. “
The players echoed McLellan’s thoughts, and Justin Braun added that it shouldn’t be too difficult to treat it like any other game:
“By the time warm-ups kicks and you’re in that zone, you don’t even think about [the atmosphere]. Maybe [during] the anthem, you give a quick look around, but other than that, you’re ready to go.”
“You show up and work the same way – ice is the same, the dimensions are the same. So you’ve got do the same thing and block everything else out.”
Even after beating the Stars on the road on Wednesday, the Sharks have lost five of their last seven contests, while the Kings are hitting their stride, winners of six straight.
So while they can marvel at the theatrics in the hours leading up to the game, the Sharks can ill-afford to be swallowed up by the moment and lose a defining game to their biggest rival.
McLellan elaborated on this game’s significance in the grand scheme of the season:
“I think this game is its own monster, if you will. We’re going to be happy or unhappy with the results and then we’re going to move on. But we’re all going to take good memories from this game, and we’re going to bank them and move on. So I think this game is a little bit different than the remaining 21 games.”
But he made sure to clarify:
“The points are still equal.”