And then there were nine.
No matter what the various NHL playoff chase scenarios around the world say, there are only nine teams left in the hunt for the Western Conference playoffs. That is because the San Jose Sharks squeezed the life out of the red hot Colorado Avalanche Monday with a 5-1 home victory.
It is one thing to defensively dominate a great team like the Boston Bruins in a game that was so close that they never had a margin for error. It is another to dominate both sides of the ice throughout a game against a team so desperate to make the playoffs that they would pull a goalie with four minutes left down three goals.
That shows the Avs knew it was win or go home. They are only one point out of the eighth spot, but have played two games more than many of their opponents.
Even if they win out, they would need help to make it in. (Ironically, the Sharks can open the door for them by winning their remaining games in regulation because of five games against teams Colorado is competing with for the final spot.)
Ryane Clowe scored into the empty net with 3:37 left to end even the faintest hopes. With a regulation win by the Calgary Flames—one point behind Colorado with a game in hand—over the Dallas Stars, San Jose jumped back into the Pacific Division lead.
The Flames chances of making the playoffs were already too remote thanks to their five-game losing streak. They are helped by playing the Stars, Avs and Los Angeles Kings they are competing with, but even at that need help to make it in.
This should open the door wide enough for the Sharks. They once again have a margin for error, something that has led to complacency for this team.
They are as vulnerable as any team in the league right after they score. They have failed to close out games, being outscored 15-8 after the second intermission in their nine-game road trip (2-6-1).
But Monday night, they kept coming after getting a lead. Joe Pavelski scored the first goal less than four minutes into the second period on a relentless push near the net. Andrew Desjardins added another 5:29 later—the only goal that Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov had any chance to stop.
Colorado pushed back with a very good goal when stay-at-home defenceman Shane O'Brien attacked the crease. They would have had a second a couple of shifts later if not for a great save by Sharks goalie Antti Niemi.
But a few minutes later, Torrey Mitchell got two chances up close on feeds from behind the net by Michal Handzus, and put the second one home for a 3-1 second period lead.
Pavelski opened the third with a rebound goal on the power play, holding off defenders in front of the net while he took multiple whacks at it.
San Jose's defence was stifling throughout. Not only did Nemo save 31 of 32, but the Sharks blocked 27 shots to Colorado's 15. They had 18 takeaways to just five for the Avs to more than make up for four more giveaways; they also won four more faceoffs.
This team is very good when it is motivated. Why they do not always play with this kind of intensity is obviously unknown to the leadership and coaches, or it would have been fixed.
The Sharks face their only remaining opponent not in playoff contention Wednesday in Anaheim. (The Ducks are one point away from being mathematically eliminated.) San Jose is just 1-4 vs. Anaheim this season, and can ill afford to overlook them.
With a game the following night in Phoenix, that may be the last chance to rest Nemo during this brutal stretch of scheduling: Nemo gave up four goals the last time he played the second night of back-to-backs.