When the Tampa Bay Lightning traveled to the Bay Area right before Christmas, they were two points below .500. The San Jose Sharks were 11 points over .500, and the difference showed, as they laid a 7-2 shellacking on their guests.
The Lightning responded to the loss to the Sharks with a four-game point streak (3-0-1) but then dropped seven (0-6-1). They ended January with five straight wins and earned points in their first two games of February (1-0-1) but have now dropped four of five (1-3-1) to fall right back to where they were before the teams faced off.
In the 13th spot in the Eastern Conference, they are running out of time to make a playoff push. They have three games left on their brief homestand and a three-game road trip before the trade deadline. If they are not closing ground, they will likely sell off assets for their future.
San Jose is also back to the beginning of the roller coaster ride. Their win over Tampa was the third in a row in a 6-1-2 stretch; then they dropped four of five (1-3-1), won three in a row and dropped three of four before their win in Washington on Monday brought them to 14 points over .500.
The Sharks are firmly, but not comfortably, in the lead for the Pacific Division—three points ahead of the Los Angeles Kings with three games in hand. But in the overall playoff picture they are 3.5 games back of No. 2 Vancouver; they are also running out of time to avoid a first-round matchup with a contender and second-round matchup on the road.
The Bolts have the fifth-worst team in the NHL but are a much different team at home where they rank 15th in the league at six points above .500. The Sharks have the sixth-best road record at five points above .500.
San Jose has been making it happen in their own end.
They routinely best their opponents in faceoffs (second in the NHL) and blocked shots to shots on goal ratio. The only reason they do not block a lot of shots is their solid puck possession keeps opposing shots low (top shot differential average).
Overall, they are sixth in goals against average (2.35). Despite ranking 26th on the season on the penalty kill (78.8 percent), they have been consistently over 85 percent since late December.
They also have been going to the box more. In each of their last two losses, they had clumps of penalties. Their last two power-play goals yielded were on five-on-threes.
While Tampa's power play is second-worst in the league (13.3), that puts the puck in their hands on the attack. The Bolts are only above average (13th) in scoring but are just a goal every 11 games behind the Sharks (ninth).
If the Sharks do not let that happen, there is a good chance they will exploit the worst defence in the NHL (3.32 GAA, 24th-ranked penalty kill at 80.3 percent). The pressure can put their own white-hot power play (10-for-24, ranked fourth overall at 21.0 percent) into action.
If not, they can rely on five-on-five, where they are fifth in the league at a 1.27 goal ratio. But the Sharks must have this win.
They are coming off their last two-day rest this month and won handily enough in Washington to let up on the high-minute players. This is the first of seven games in the final 11 days of the road trip, so they will help themselves greatly if they have a repeat performance.