While it is the only series to appear only on the west coast, the first-round battle between the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks is gaining plenty of notoriety on the east coast as the most anticipated series this postseason. Especially after last spring's marathon seven-game war, the rematch between these two state rivals is leaving all those bloodthirsty hockey fans on the edge of their collective seats. But as opposed to last year, there's a new figure to this rivalry - and his name is Tomas Hertl.
Early this season, fans and experts around the league caught a good glimpse at the Czech rookie who scored four goals in a game in early October. But in December, in game vs. the Los Angeles Kings, his season was cut short.
In the late stages of a scoreless first period between the Kings and Sharks, Hertl collided with Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown. Unfortunately for the rookie, he got the worst of it, being forced to leave the game. To make matters worse, Hertl would be forced to miss the next 45 games before returning in time for San Jose's regular-season finale against Colorado. But from the incident until his return and even now, some of the Sharks still harbor hard feelings towards Brown who, whether they believe his act was intentional or not, felt the Kings' forward should have taken more accountability for his actions. Sharks' forward Tommy Wingels claimed that Brown, according ProHockeyTalk's Mike Helford, "doesn't want to own up" to what he did to Hertl before saying on Monday that Hertl would like "to stick it to them (the Kings) by winning the series." Wingels also said that Hertl is aware that the incident in question was against the Kings. Personally, I would hope that Hertl was aware of such a point because if he wasn't, he might have to see a neurologist and, with that, open up a whole new can of worms.
In addition to Wingels' feelings, San Jose GM Doug Wilson expressed his own displeasure, saying he was 'disappointed' in Brown's lack of concern for Hertl. Hertl himself even admitted on Monday to NHL.com that going up against Los Angeles in the opening round is 'personal.'
Going back to said collision that put Hertl out of commission for much of the season, the replay shows that Dustin Brown had made a conscious effort to avoid coming into contact with the rookie. While it was unfortunate to see Hertl get injured as severely as he did, I don't believe that should be of any concern of Brown's. I don't mean to sound inconsiderate but the Kings captain made the effort to get out of the rookie's path.
Would it have been gracious of Dustin Brown to go to the hospital or Hertl's home to check in and see how he was doing? Sure. But Brown would not have been under any obligation to do so. It wasn't even a hit, just an unfortunate collision. Had the roles been reversed, fans and players in San Jose would be telling their counterparts in Los Angeles to stop their whining. But since Tomas Hertl received the worst of this, it's the other way around - and rightfully so.
What is it that encourages Sharks supporters to harbor hard feelings towards Dustin Brown? I understand that he captains one of their team's most hated rivals but the Sharks made the playoffs anyway - and hold home-ice advantage over the Kings - and, as a bonus, Tomas Hertl is back from injury. With all due respect to a knee injury, it's secondary to head shots because, well, the brain's much more important. With that said, I remember when Los Angeles's Jarret Stoll received a blow to the head - resulting in a concussion - from San Jose's Raffi Torres last spring, who just happens to have a worse history than Dustin Brown does. Sadly, all San Jose GM Doug Wilson did was criticize the NHL for suspending Torres for the remainder of his team's series vs. the Kings. Never did Wilson, nor Torres especially, express any concern for Stoll. It seems to me like a classy organization like the San Jose Sharks would do such a thing. After all, you damage your knee enough, you can't walk. But if you damage your brain enough, you're dead. Could you imagine what Wilson would've had for his eulogy had the worst happened to Stoll? Neither can I.
I have made this comparison before but allow me to make it again. Dustin Brown reminds me most of Hall-of-Famer Scott Stevens in the sense both were notorious for dishing out devastating hits. But both had another thing in common: as hard as those hits were, Brown and Stevens delivered them cleanly. The opposing teams may disagree depending on the severity of their player's injury but, like Stevens, there isn't anything Dustin Brown offers physically that's out of line. That's just the way it is, whether the San Jose Sharks or any other team like it or not.
It seems as if Thursday night cannot come fast enough. The San Jose Sharks are still crying over something that happened - accidentally, mind you - back in December. Worse, despite playing through the season as if they've never missed a beat, the Sharks feel as if they need something to gripe about. Perhaps if they spent less time whining and more time on the task at hand, they would have never earned the dubious distinction of being playoff underachievers. But if the Sharks want to focus on Dustin Brown, their public enemy number one, then they can be my guests. If that is the case, however, this series may be a lot easier for the Los Angeles Kings to win, further explaining why the Sharks can't deliver when it matters most.