SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The last time the San Jose Sharks faced the Los Angeles Kings, it looked as if San Jose's season was in big trouble.
A knee-on-knee hit by Kings captain Dustin Brown knocked Sharks rookie Tomas Hertl out of the Dec. 19 game and required surgery that may turn out to be season-ending for the Czech native. It was an emotionally deflating night, and when it ended with Los Angeles winning 4-1, the Sharks trailed the Kings by four points in the Pacific Division.
But strange how things have worked out.
The Sharks--who would later lose another top forward, Logan Couture, to a hand injury suffered that same night--have gone 13-4 while Los Angeles has struggled at 5-10-2. San Jose has opened up a 10-point gap over the Kings, and adding to that margin when the teams meet Monday night is still considered the best payback.
"We're going to win the game for Hertl, that's what we'll do," defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said Sunday. "There's nothing you can do now but play hard and win the game for him."
The hit at 18:59 of the first period only intensified an already heated rivalry fueled by two playoff match-ups in the past three years. Though Brown was given a major penalty for kneeing and a game misconduct, the fact that no suspension followed left the Sharks shaking their heads.
"We weren't happy, and I certainly wasn't, with the way things were handled and the play itself," said forward Tommy Wingels, who had a career-high 11 hits the night Hertl was hurt.
Four days later, San Jose general manager Doug Wilson ended up fanning the flames by expressing his disappointment that Brown, while defending the hit, never expressed concern for Hertl.
None of which is to suggest things will get out of hand Monday night.
"Are you looking for retaliation?" Wingels responded when asked how any carryover might manifest itself. "No, I don't think you'll get that."
What can be expected is more of the same hard-hitting hockey that characterizes a series in which the home team has won each of the past 15 regular-season and playoff games.
"I think every time we play them we want to lean into them and get the two points," defenseman Matt Irwin said. "I don't think it matters what happened in the game before. Everyone knows what happened, and it is what it is. It's in the past, and there's nothing we can do to change that."
The Kings have had trouble scoring since the last time the teams met, averaging 1.8 goals over the 17-game stretch. Meanwhile, the Sharks credit organizational depth for their continued success as players such as Wingels and Matt Nieto have done well filling in on the top two lines while others such as Bracken Kearns and Eriah Hayes have helped fill out the third and fourth.
"The cliches that we've used earlier about other players seeking or earning opportunity, it's existed and they've delivered," McLellan said.
The Sharks enter the game on a six-game winning streak while the Kings have dropped their last five.
"Sometimes when injuries occur, it can galvanize a team, it can bring a group together," McLellan said. "We narrow our focus a little bit more, and guys have done that."
Hertl has not resumed skating, and McLellan had no update on the possibility he would miss the rest of the season--something the team did not rule out when Hertl had surgery to repair damage to both his medial and posterior cruciate ligaments Dec. 31 in Cleveland.
But the 20-year-old rookie is going through rehab off the ice.
"He shows up every day on time and ready to work," McLellan said. "I think he likes being around his teammates even when he's hurt. Take a quick peek in on him every now and then, and he's working hard. Young players recover quick, and we've got our fingers crossed."
(c)2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services