There is a recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live called The Californians, in which Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Taran Killam and the rest spoof the fascination here with freeway travel.
In the midst of the Sturm und Drang of a fictional day-time soap opera, the characters pause, mid-scene, to debate the most efficient way of getting from point A to point B without encountering hopeless gridlock.
If The Californians were real, and if they were hockey fans, then they would have a field day with what happens next in the NHL's Western Conference semi-finals: The defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings play the San Jose Sharks, and even if it isn't the Freeway Series everyone imagined – against the crosstown Anaheim Ducks – the fact is, the Interstate 5 highway takes you most of the way from Staples Center into Northern California, before you exit on to the 152, the 101, and then the 85, which takes you directly to the HP Pavilion.
The Sharks are the only California expansion team not to have won the Stanley Cup, but after sweeping the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round, they are rested and ready to make a run. Curiously, the Sharks foundation was laid by their former front office, all of whom happen to be running the Kings. General manager Dean Lombardi, assistant to the president Jack Ferreira and head coach Darryl Sutter all cut their teeth in the Sharks organization.
Lombardi drafted Patrick Marleau, Brad Stuart and Scott Hannan, and Sutter nurtured them through their early years. Accordingly, the Kings staff all know the way to San Jose – and back – Lombardi would remember how it went the last time the two teams met in the playoffs, in 2011, when the Sharks won with the same essential personnel.
The Kings played that series without Anze Kopitar, their leading scorer, who'd broken his ankle just before the playoffs began, and with Justin Williams hobbled by a separated shoulder. Williams had been injured in a collision with Calgary Flames blueliner Robyn Regehr, who happens to be his teammate now after joining the Kings at the trade deadline from the Buffalo Sabres. Regehr and Drew Doughty will be the feature shutdown pair against the Sharks – and Regehr has a long history against them, a win in the 2004 playoffs and a loss in 2009, when (Iron) Mike Keenan was coaching Calgary.
"Five-on-five, they have guys that can finish," Regehr said, "guys like [Sharks centre Joe] Thornton, who like to play from behind the net. He's got great vision and the passing ability to be able to find those guys. A guy like [defenceman-turned-forward] Brent Burns is a big guy, strong guy, who can protect the puck along the boards and tries to open up a little more room for his linemates.
"He's fit in surprisingly well. I don't think anybody knew how well that would work out, except maybe for the guys in San Jose when they did it. It's been effective for them, and those top two lines are definitely a huge part of their offence."
As Regehr noted, the wild card in the equation may be Burns, who has helped balance the Sharks forward lines at even strength, something they lacked during a mid-season funk. They were exceptional on the power play against the Canucks (7-for-24, a robust 29.2-per-cent success rating), but Los Angeles played an extremely disciplined series against the St. Louis Blues and managed to mostly stay out of the penalty box (surrendering only two power-play goals on 17 chances).
The Kings have an ability the Canucks lack, which is to play the game physically but do it mostly within the rules.
If the upcoming games are played largely at even strength, it should be an advantage to the Kings, who established an NHL first last round by winning their fifth consecutive playoff round, without the home-ice advantage. Centre Jarrett Stoll, a 10-year veteran of 10 previous playoff series, said this would be the first time in his career he's started a series at home.
"I see they're blocking a lot of shots, they're paying the price that way – and that's what you've got to do," Stoll said. "That's why most teams are still playing."
In the meantime, the road to San Jose only really matters to the Kings coach because it is relatively short and easily travelled.
"It does make a difference," Sutter said. "You watch the Anaheim-Detroit game [last Sunday], quite honestly, we were pulling for the team in our time zone. If you look at how close the teams are in our division, you're probably going to go through one or two – and that's what we're doing."