SAN JOSE -- At first, I thought Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter might be kidding. Then I realized: Darryl Sutter is not the kidding type.
During an interview after the Kings' practice session here Wednesday, Sutter raised my eyebrows a couple of times. He is in town for Thursday night's game against the Sharks at HP Pavilion -- the first of a home-and-home set that concludes Saturday at the Staples Center.
Sutter, as we all know, coached the Sharks from 1997-2002 before going on to stand behind the bench in Calgary and L.A. And in our conversation, he answered one of my questions by opining that some of his Sharks teams were just as outstanding on the ice as his Kings team that won the Stanley Cup last spring.
"We were as good a team as the team we have now," Sutter maintained, speaking primarily of the 2001-02 Pacific Division winning Sharks.
Is that really so? Well, those Sharks did reach the second round and came within a Game 7 goal of upsetting then-defending-champion Colorado. If Teemu Selanne had not blown a sure-thing wrap-around goal chance that night -- he rushed the shot and missed an open net — I suppose that the Sharks could possibly have gone on to win the whole thing. I wondered if Sutter ever pondered that muff by Selanne.
"No, I don't think of that," Sutter said. "I think about how I wish he would have been a healthy player when he was playing in San Jose instead of fighting a knee problem he had. I wish he would have had the chance to play here without that."
The knee injury was undisclosed during Selanne's two-plus seasons with the Sharks -- but he finally had surgery for it during the 2004-05 lockout, after he left the team. He has thrived ever since, still scoring goals in Anaheim at age 42.
It just shows you how much luck and fate matters when it comes to hockey success.
And that left me pondering the other eye-blinking statement Sutter made as we discussed the tight race for playoff spots in the NHL's Western Conference. As of Thursday morning, the eight teams that occupied third through 10th place in the standings were separated by two points.
"There's zero difference in these teams," Sutter said. "Zero."
Wait a minute. Did that include the Sharks? Of course, Sutter said. That's hard to believe, given the way that our beloved Los Tiburones have fallen into a center-ice sinkhole. They own a mere two regulation victories in their last 17 games.
And yet . . . well, if the Sharks still want to believe in their Stanley Cup chances, they can indeed look at the opposite bench Thursday night. A year ago at this time, no one gave the Kings a prayer of winning the Cup. Indeed, it is easy to forget how demonstrably dominant the Sharks had been over the Kings for an extended period, right up until the playoffs started.
You can look it up. In the spring of 2011, Los Angeles lost a first-round series in six games to the Sharks -- who then spent the 2011-12 regular season beating the Kings in four of six matchups. That included an overtime victory on the schedule's final weekend. That triumph earned the Sharks a seventh seed in the West and dropped L.A. into the eighth seed.
But we all know what happened next. The Kings got on a roll and upset top-seeded Vancouver in the first playoff round, then kept grinding and grinding until they were the last team standing.
How did it happen? Sutter certainly deserves some credit. Hired a few months into the season, he brought more discipline and focus to a young Kings roster. And here comes ironic fate again: The man who hired Sutter in Los Angeles was general manager Dean Lombardi, who had fired Sutter in San Jose in 2002 before Lombardi was fired himself not long thereafter.
Without Lombardi and Sutter, the Kings probably don't win the Cup, although it doesn't necessarily follow that they would have done the same here with the Sharks. The game is too goofy. Even more so this season, with the lockout-induced compressed schedule.
Sutter had thoughts about that, as well. He is the only current NHL coach who was also behind the bench for the league's only other 48-game short season in 1994-95, also spawned by labor strife. He was the Chicago Blackhawks' coach that winter and is applying the lessons he learned -- which primarily involves watching players' minutes carefully and avoiding uber-anxiety when a bad week or two hits.
He wishes, however, that NHL rosters could have been expanded by five or six more players to account for the extra strain of the truncated schedule, giving coaches more flexibility to rest their personnel. Thursday will be the Kings' fourth game in six nights. Same for the Sharks. In a physical sport, that's no way to treat a human body. A few Kings players have still not even recovered from the extra two months of Stanley Cup play.
"We have two defensemen who still haven't played a game," Sutter said, not in frustration but with pragmatism. "It just proves that they're not machines. They're people."
The lesson to take away for the Sharks, I guess, is that people on at least one California hockey team have proved they can be unpredictable enough to barely squeeze into the postseason but still seize the Cup. Heck, the Kings might do it again this time. They lost six of their first nine games before righting the ship to rejoin the hunt.
Who knows? Perhaps the Sharks can cast aside their ongoing slump and do the same. Sutter will likely receive the normal good reception at HP Pavilion before faceoff. He's long over any bitterness toward the Sharks organization and stays in close touch with former Sharks defenseman Mike Rathje and former captain Owen Nolan. At the same time, Sutter said he never drives through his old South San Jose neighborhood to rekindle memories.
"They closed down the Almaden Feed and Fuel," Sutter lamented, referring to a tavern down the street from his house.
Of course, you don't need a tavern when you can drink out of a Cup. And right now, believe it or not, even the woeful Sharks are still eligible to do so in 2013.