The Sabres are back in Buffalo, and they’re able to exhale. The three-game gauntlet through California is over for another year. While they’ll miss the weather, they won’t miss the challenge of facing Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose.
For those three teams, however, the intense competition never ends.
The in-state neighbors have positioned themselves among the Western Conference elite. Bolstered by a recent run of playoff encounters, their rivalries are among the fiercest in the NHL.
“We all hate each other, so it works out,” Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. “All three teams know that they’re pretty good teams. Consequently, every game is a big game.”
Nearly every move made by a California team gets magnified or scrutinized. The Ducks look down the freeway and know they need to close the gap on the Stanley Cup-winning Kings. The Sharks want to show that northern California can compete with SoCal.
“They called it an ‘arms race’ this summer for the Western Conference teams to bulk up,” Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr said. “Teams are just pushing one another to get better all the time.”
Rivalries grow exponentially when the competitors are winning. Those teams are. At least two of the three have made the playoffs each of the past six years, with all three advancing to the postseason in 2011, 2013 and 2014.
Upon arrival, they’ve encountered each other. The Kings beat San Jose and Anaheim last season en route to the Cup. The Sharks and Kings also met in 2011 and 2013, while the Sharks and Ducks faced off in 2009.
San Jose and Anaheim combined for 165 penalty minutes Sunday night in a brawl-filled game.
“It’s intense, especially the last four, five years,” said Sabres forward Torrey Mitchell, who played for San Jose from 2007 to 2012. “It’s really ramped up with L.A. winning the Cup and San Jose and L.A. playing each other every year, it seems like. Anaheim’s obviously a really competitive team.
“It’s bragging rights between the north and the south. It’s always been like a baseball-football thing, but in the last five, 10 years it’s translated to hockey. San Francisco and the Los Angeles Dodgers have a lot of history in baseball, and it’s sort of transferred to hockey with L.A. and San Jose. The fans here love beating L.A., and I know L.A. likes beating San Jose. It’s a really big thing.”
The NHL added another jolt to the competition last season when it changed the playoff format. The first two rounds are now interdivision, meaning the Pacific teams will have to go through each other every spring in order to advance to the conference finals.
“We all want to make playoffs,” Ducks center Ryan Kesler said. “There’s a couple really good teams that won’t make playoffs this year, and it’s going to be a couple points. If you look at it that way, we’re all pushing each other to make playoffs.”
The teams feel each other’s presence even when they’re not in the same rink. Anaheim can’t afford to take Buffalo lightly one night because it knows L.A. will be intent on taking down Winnipeg a few nights later. One game could determine home-ice advantage.
“The West is so tight out here,” Anaheim forward Matt Beleskey said. “Every night is going to be a battle against pretty much similar teams. We all play similar game styles. We’re always just trying to put points between us and other teams because even a winning streak might not put you far ahead out here.”
The similar style referred to by Beleskey is a rugged, no-nonsense game. Though each roster is filled with skill players who can win games by themselves, the players strive to do the little things that collectively make a team great.
“They win for a reason,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “They’re fast. They move the puck north-south as good as any teams in the league. They’re not fancy. They get over the blue line and throw the pucks on net. They don’t try the east-west passes and try to cross the ice all the time. They chip it in, take the bodies, and that’s what winning teams do. We’ve got to take some of that.”
The Sabres took a few notes during their trip. They can put them to use Tuesday in Toronto. Meanwhile, the California teams will continue to challenge each other and captivate a state.
“The teams are contending teams each and every year, and that’s really positive for grass-roots hockey,” Regehr said. “Kids are coming to watch games, and we hope that 10-15 years down the road there will be that wave of players that want to be the next Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar.
“It’s great for hockey in California, that’s for sure.”