Is this the year?

Of course not. This is never the year for the Sharks.

They are the vexation dynamos of Northern California sports. Since 2004, they have qualified for the playoffs more often than any other Bay Area pro team. Over that time, they have won more postseason games than the 49ers, Raiders, Giants, A's and Warriors -- combined. And yet they have never won it all. The Stanley Cup has continued to elude the Sharks.

So this obviously won't be their year, either.

Unless ... it is.

Because it could be. Really. No, really. With the precisely right combination of wicked skill, grind-it-out gravel and a little luck, the Sharks could finally break through.

That would be hilarious if it happens, because after so many seasons when they have been the fashionable choice to take the whole thing, no one is picking the Sharks to go all the way. Including me. But everyone said the same stuff about the Los Angeles Kings' chances a year ago. They barely sneaked into the playoffs. Then, stunningly, they went on to win the Cup.

Sharks forward Logan Couture was at home watching on television that night, principally because one of his childhood pals, Drew Doughty, is on the Los Angeles roster.

"I was happy because one of my friends won the Stanley Cup," Couture remembered. "But I was mad because it wasn't us."

He and the other Sharks can take the next step in erasing that anger, starting Tuesday night against those Kings at L.A.'s Staples Center in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. The Sharks were impressive in their first-round sweep of Vancouver. The Kings, as defending NHL champions, present a far stiffer challenge.

Not an insurmountable one, however. The Sharks split four games against Los Angeles this season. The Sharks won four of six games against the Kings last season. When the teams met in the playoffs two years ago, the Sharks won in six games. Los Angeles could win but won't awe or intimidate.

The NHL might not be America's most popular sports league. But it is the most unpredictable and fickle. Already in this year's playoffs, the second, third and fourth seeds in the Western Conference have been eliminated.

"That's what the NHL is about now," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "I don't know about the other sports. I don't study those leagues. But in our league, it's a race just to get into the playoffs because you know that you will have the opportunity -- if you come together at the right time -- to have some success. Los Angeles proved that last year. Maybe some team can do it this year."

If you're looking for reasons to believe that "some team" might be the Sharks, here they are:

  • They are a looser team than in the past, a fine quality to possess during a potential two-month playoff grind. Perhaps it's part of flying under the radar as a lower seed, but this Sharks dressing room has a relaxed and semi-goofy feel, in a good way. Brent Burns, the defenseman who has been converted to a forward, is a classic hockey character, covered with tattoos and oozing eccentricity. Scott Gomez, a two-time Cup winner with New Jersey, is a 33-year-old veteran who never met a conversation he didn't like.

  • The looseness has also carried over to the ice. The Sharks don't seem to be gripping their sticks as tightly under pressure or forcing impossible plays, resulting in damaging turnovers. In comparing this team to last year's team that exited in the first round, centerman Joe Pavelski said, "We're a little simpler, a little quicker, having more fun. But mostly, we're quicker and simpler. Those are good keys."

  • These Sharks are more resilient than previous versions of our beloved Los Tiburones. They may have swept Vancouver, but the Sharks trailed the Canucks in three of the victories. Three comeback wins in four games is significant.

  • The Sharks are more rested and ready after their four-game sweep, while the Kings spent six games beating St. Louis in a ground-beef physical series. If this series goes seven games, that could tell the tale. So let's say the Sharks take it while Detroit eliminates Chicago in the other conference semifinal, which would give the Sharks home-ice advantage in the conference finals. ...

    No. Don't want to think too far ahead.

    "We've just got to play the way we did the first series," Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said, before acknowledging, "Once you get hot in the playoffs and if you stay hot, you can go far."

    Is this the year? Probably not. But keep an eye on the thermometer. You never know.

    Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.