Top Shelf: For once, an outdoor game with high stakes

Philadelphia, PA ( - When the NHL has taken its sport outside among the elements in the past, the unnatural setting often gives the event the feel of an exhibition contest.

That will not be the case Saturday evening at Levi's Stadium because there is simply too much at stake for both the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks.

Nestled in the heart of Silicon Valley, the home of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers offers striking views of the Northern California landscape, but the Kings and Sharks will be too busy thinking about the Western Conference playoff race to get caught gazing at the pretty sights.

The host Sharks are hanging onto the final postseason berth in the West and the defending champion Kings are lurking just two points behind. If Minnesota manages to win Friday night in Edmonton, the Wild will jump one point ahead of Los Angeles and carve out a spot in the standings between the Kings and Sharks.

As tight as the race is for the last wild card spot in the West, the battle for the second and third automatic berths from the Pacific Division is even closer. San Jose enters Friday tied with Calgary at 68 points, but the Flames hold the current tiebreaker due to having played two fewer games at this stage of the season. Vancouver, meanwhile, is one point in front of Calgary for second place in the division.

It could be a fight to the finish for the final playoff berths and Saturday's outdoor clash will be one of many key battles on the path to the postseason. Still, this Stadium Series encounter in Santa Clara could be a turning point for either the Kings or Sharks.

Although San Jose would qualify for playoffs if the season ended today, it may need a win Saturday more than the Kings.

After dealing with what many folks would dub a "Stanley Cup hangover" for a large part of the 2014-15 campaign, L.A. is finally resembling the team which has won two of the league's last three titles. The Kings will enter Saturday on a six-game winning streak, which ties a run from Oct. 12-26 as the club's longest stretch of wins this season.

Conversely, February has been a monumental struggle for the Sharks. Todd McLellan's squad won its last game, notching a 5-2 win in Dallas on Thursday, but overall San Jose is sporting a poor 3-5-2 record this month. With only 22 games left on the schedule, the Sharks can ill afford a protracted slump at this juncture.

On top of its recent struggles, San Jose also is haunted by the ghost of last spring's historic playoff collapse against the Kings, who became the fourth team in NHL history to win a series after losing the first three games. A first-round postseason exit is always tough to swallow, but the way it happened combined with L.A.'s eventual run to another Cup has to make it even harder to accept.

The Sharks have won two of three against L.A. in the 2014-15 season series, but it's important they put forth a strong effort Saturday against a Kings team that has been on a roll.

Picking up a win in Dallas could be the start of a turnaround for the Sharks, although a bad performance against the Kings could prevent them from building momentum.

"We've got to start winning. This was a huge game," Sharks forward Andrew Desjardins said after he scored twice in the win over the Stars. "We've got to start learning to win and start getting on the winning track again, so I think this was a big start."

Saturday's tilt under the bright lights isn't a must win for either L.A. or San Jose, but it does feel like it means a heck of a lot more than your average outdoor game.