SAN JOSE, Calif. -- For a team that had 111 points in the standings, the San Jose Sharks sure aren't getting a lot of love from prognosticators in their first-round series with the rival Los Angeles Kings.
Most people are picking the 2012 champs to beat the Sharks in what is shaping up to be another compelling series between a pair of contending teams.
It's a series worthy of the conference finals, but somebody has to go home early. Most people are predicting that it will be San Jose.
"Oh, good for them," Sharks star defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said on the eve of Game 1.
"Why are they picking L.A.? Because they won the Cup two years ago and beat us last year, I guess," he added, answering his own question. "People can pick who they want. We don't care. It's an evenly matched series. Last year went to seven [games], and this year I would expect the same. I don't mind if everybody picks L.A. I'm here to win. We want to prove to ourselves that we can beat all the best teams."
It's a fascinating thing, really, to see a Sharks team loaded with talent and owning home-ice advantage to somehow enter this series as a slight underdog.
"We're so evenly matched," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "I don't know how you pick a favorite. Their past success has to allow them to maybe come out on top [as a favorite] and the fact that they beat us last year. But quite frankly, I don't think anybody in our locker room -- and I'm guessing [nobody] in their locker room -- is paying any attention to what you guys do on your five days off when you have nothing left to write about.
"It's the stories after the series that are important, not the ones before."
This season, the Sharks would have Game 7 at home, which is not insignificant for a team with the second-best home record in the NHL. The Shark Tank is as noisy as any rink in the NHL, and the Sharks feed off that.
"It's definitely loud. It's a fun place to play. Our fans are great and crazy," longtime star winger Patrick Marleau said. "It's great to play in front of them."
On the other matter, well, that remains an edge for the Kings. Quick is arguably the top money goalie in the league, while Niemi struggled down the stretch this season. Niemi is expected to start in goal for Game 1, but one suspects the Sharks' coaching staff won't be shy to put in backup Alex Stalock at any point if the veteran Finn struggles early in this series.
There's nothing the Sharks can do to change that facet of this series: The Kings have the better goalie, and everybody knows it.
So you move on to other areas of the game, and where the Sharks have improved -- if healthy -- is their depth up front.
Tomas Hertl and Raffi Torres are both expected to play in Game 1 after each missed most of the season recovering from knee surgery. Hertl played the last two regular-season games to try to get into game shape while Torres did not.
What the Sharks get from these two guys could be a factor in any matchup advantage they can establish on the Kings.