Thursday's game showcased what the San Jose Sharks are capable of.
In a 2-1 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, the Sharks limited the second-best scoring team to 17 shots and one goal. They blocked as many shots as they allowed to reach Antti Niemi (four more than Boston despite getting three more attempts and 10 more on net).
The Sharks dominated in the puck possession category. They were plus-four in faceoffs yet had fewer giveaways (9-10) and a lot more takeaways (16-4). There were so many Sharks steals that the HP Pavilion should have double-billed the game with the musical Oliver ("got to pick a pocket or two!").
Their third-worst penalty kill held a power play in the top half of the league to one shot in four minutes, though neither team scored on special teams. (Boston had three penalties.) That and hits (40-13 in Boston's favour) are the only statistics the Sharks did not win.
If they can play this way now, why not earlier? Did they have to wait until they were literally must-win games? (The only way the Sharks are guaranteed a playoff spot is to win out.)
It might have something to do with playing a team from the Eastern Time Zone.
The Sharks have done well against those teams for years. They typically have an impressive record against the Eastern Conference, almost owning elite teams such as Washington, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh over the years (Buffalo is an exception). They also have dominated Columbus (most have) and are 14-6 vs. Detroit over the past two years.
This season, the Sharks have played 25 games against the Eastern Time Zone (note: the 2-0 win over Winnipeg is left off because they are in the Central Time Zone), and is 17-7-1—a .700 point percentage.
Against everyone in the Central, Mountain and Pacific Time Zones, they are 20-20-9.
This would bode well if the Sharks make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, but will not help them get there. The only Eastern Time Zone team that will be in the Western Conference playoffs is the Detroit Red Wings. The Sharks recent dominance of the Wings is no secret, but the chance the two match up in the first round is unlikely.
Detroit is 3.5 games behind St. Louis for their division. Even if the Wings win out, all the Blues have to do to hold them off is get four wins or nine points over their final seven games. Likewise, Detroit will finish with a top-six seed by merely playing over .500 hockey themselves—even if teams chasing them win all their games.
Even if San Jose is perfect over their last eight (including all wins being in regulation or overtime), they cannot jump into the fourth or fifth spot unless both Nashville and Detroit play under .500 hockey.
That makes any matchup between the two teams possible only if San Jose wins the division and Detroit drops to sixth. Both teams are one game from that happening, so that is quite possible.
Am I seriously suggesting that the Sharks can only beat an Eastern Time Zone team in the playoffs?
No, but it is hardly a statistical anomaly at this point.
The likelihood of them beating St. Louis or Vancouver (against whom they are 1-6-1 this season, with the only win being a shootout) in the first round is minuscule. They need to capture the division if they want to go deep, and it would also help if Detroit was the sixth seed.