Sharks set to prove doubters wrong

"We have a deep team," Vlasic said. "Even if Raffi or Hertl play limited minutes, I still feel we have the team in here to beat L.A. With those guys back, it'll just give us a big boost."

The dilemma for San Jose is what to do with 41-goal scorer Joe Pavelski. Do you keep him on the left wing on  Joe Thornton's line, where Pavelski did most of his damage this season, or do you put Hertl back on that line and have Pavelski as a third-line center, which is a real luxury?

In Tuesday's practice, Pavelski skated as the third-line center. In Wednesday's practice, Pavelski was back on the wing with Thornton.

Theory: The Sharks have the last line change at home for Games 1 and 2. They can keep Pavelski on Thornton's line and better control matchups throughout the game, including key faceoffs. For Games 3 and 4 in L.A., without the last line change, maybe Pavelski becomes a third-line center in order to protect the faceoff circle.

It's going to be one of the most fascinating decisions throughout the series because the Kings' third-line center, Jarret Stoll, is a master in the faceoff circle and always raises his game come playoff time.

Another interesting matchup will see Vlasic, San Jose's top defenseman, likely match up against the Kings' top line, centered by Anze Kopitar.

Vlasic's confidence grew after a clutch performance at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, with gold-medal-winning Team Canada.

"That's going to be awesome," Vlasic said of facing Kopitar's line. "Same thing last year. A lot more speed on that line now with  [Marian] Gaborik, too. Kopitar is one of the best two-way forwards in the league.  [Justin] Williams is so good around the net. Hey, I'm looking forward to it; it's a great opportunity."

That's the attitude you find in the Sharks' locker room, that this incredible first-round matchup, pitting two bona fide contenders, is an opportunity, not a burden.

Like it or not, the Sharks need this series win -- and perhaps a few others -- to shed their label.

Despite playing in back-to-back Western Conference finals in 2010 and 2011 -- and pushing the Kings to the limit in the second round last season -- the Sharks still carry the reputation as the team that leaves you wanting more at this time of year.

And that's probably because their two California cousins in Anaheim and L.A. each have a Stanley Cup banner hanging in their respective rinks. The California hockey standard is high.

"Everyone's quick to pick L.A. because they're just a harder, more methodical team for me," a Western Conference head coach told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "The biggest thing, first of all, is that L.A. has better goaltending. No. 2, who's more apt to make a big mistake at a critical time that's going to cost you a game? I really believe San Jose is more apt to make that mistake, whereas L.A. just isn't going to."

A Western Conference executive from another team said the Sharks, however, have become a much better playoff team over the years.

"San Jose has worked tirelessly to get themselves over the hump," he said Wednesday. "They have added speed to their lineup. They roll four lines, and their young forwards [Pavelski and Logan Couture] are approaching their prime. Their veterans know that it's essentially now or never for them. They will play with desperation in this series."

When asked who he was picking, though, the executive said, "L.A."

The Kings are the people's pick, so the opportunity is here for the Sharks to make a statement, perhaps their most important in years.

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