SAN JOSE -- If the Sharks take care of business, Saturday night should be wrap-up night. They can finish off their playoff series with the Los Angeles Kings at SAP Center in five games.
Odds are tilted teal. The Sharks have carried the offensive play throughout the series -- even in their Game 4 loss at Staples Center in L.A., when they outshot and out-chanced the Kings.
Combine that with L.A.'s documented difficulties winning at The Tank, where they have compiled a 1-9 record in their last 10 visits, and ... well, everything points to a happy handshake line for the Sharks at the end of the evening.
See that man pacing behind the Kings bench? He is going to have something to say about this. Any time you catch the visage of Darryl Sutter, in full frontal scowl, it always gives you pause.
Never forget that as a head coach, Sutter is 2-0 in his two previous playoff series against the Sharks. His teams are always tough outs, wherever he has been -- which, of course, includes San Jose. We know him too well.
Sutter also knows hockey better than most. A year ago when the Sharks swept Vancouver in the first round, one reason was the incredible stubbornness of Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. For four straight losses, Vigneault stuck with the same line combinations and matchups that weren't working against the superior Sharks.
By contrast, Sutter hasn't been afraid to shift the axis of his team and try different combinations. In Game 4, he moved his grit-heavy team captain, winger Dustin Brown, up from the Kings' third line to their first line. He replaced the flashier Justin Williams, who dropped down to the third line. The switch paid immediate results. Williams scored twice in Los Angeles' 6-3 victory. Brown assisted on the game's first goal.
Afterward, a reporter asked Sutter if Brown might stay on the top line for Game 5.
"It could be," answered Sutter.
This, too, is something with which San Jose became familiar during Sutter's time with the Sharks, from 1997-2002. The man never uses four words when three words will do. It helps boost Sutter's reputation as an uber-stern taskmaster. But the truth is more layered. Any player who maxes out his effort has no real problems playing for Sutter, who can be remarkably sentimental at times.
In fact, one of the more touching moments in Sharks history occurred in 2004 after the team lost in the Western Conference finals to Calgary. The elimination happened in Game 6 at the Saddledome. By then, Sutter had become the Flames' head coach after being fired in San Jose one season earlier.
Yet that night, even as his Calgary players were celebrating, Sutter made certain to wait at the tunnel entrance where Sharks players exited the ice. He knew almost all of them from his time with the team. As each Shark passed by Sutter, he grabbed their arms or hugged them. He was going to the Stanley Cup finals. They weren't. But he spoke encouraging words in their ears.
"Those guys are winners, too," Sutter explained to me later. "I felt bad for them. Hey, those guys, we went to war together. I told them I wish it could have been all of us, all together."
As it turned out, Sutter and the Flames lost in the finals that year, but he finally won a Cup with the Kings in 2012. Most of that roster is still wearing L.A. uniforms, which is another reason the Sharks will have difficulty closing out the Kings. Sutter's mantra has always been that to win, your team's best players have to be your best players -- and better than the other team's best players. He broached the topic again after Game 4 in saying his veteran players had matched the intensity of the Sharks veterans.
As usual, Sutter also reminded everyone that it doesn't guarantee anything for Game 5.
"I don't think there is any momentum from game to game," Sutter said, "other than to try and play the same way."
It can be difficult to quantify how much a head coach really affects the bedlam on the ice, once it starts. But when action stops, coaching is a factor. Sharks coach Todd McLellan made the best strategic move of Game 3 when he sent Joe Pavelski out with Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture for a faceoff in overtime that resulted in the winning goal.
Game preparation is also a major coaching factor, as Sutter has shown over the years in several playoff upsets and McLellan has demonstrated in two successful playoff dismantlings of Detroit since 2010.
Saturday night, McLellan will have the last line change. We'll see then if he has an answer to Sutter's latest line maneuvering, or whether the plan is to stay pat. Sutter may not be the eminence grise of this series, exactly. But if the Kings win another game, his countenance will keep looming larger.
Sharks lead Kings 3-1
Game 1: Sharks 6, Kings 3
Game 2: Sharks 7, Kings 2
Game 3: Sharks 4, Kings 3, OT
Game 4: Kings 6, Sharks 3
Game 5: At San Jose.
7 p.m. Saturday, CSNCA, CNBC
Game 6*: At L.A., Monday, TBD
Game 7*: At San Jose,
* -- if necessary
As Sharks know, Kings coach's teams never an easy out in playoffs.