NHL pundits like to say the playoffs have already started for some teams. This is so often used to exaggerate a team's position on the edge of the playoff picture or even fighting for a division title.
This year, it is 100 percent true for the top four teams in the NHL Pacific Division.
One point might very well make the difference between winning the division or missing the playoffs. The tiebreak is likely to come into play. All four teams already came into the weekend having to essentially win that "series" of four games left in their season.
However, the San Jose Sharks have something that makes it even more of a playoff. They have consecutive home-and-home "series" against the two top teams in that battle with the Sharks.
San Jose won Round 1, routing the Dallas Stars for the fourth time in five games. For the first time, it accomplished that by playing suffocating defense. The Sharks held the Stars to just 22 shots on goal thanks in part to 13 blocks. Most of those were routine for goalie Antti Niemi, playing in his 18th consecutive game.
However, it was just as much puck control: San Jose held the advantage in faceoffs (30-23), yet was plus-two in turnover differential.
Round 2 in Dallas will tell us all we need to know about the contenders.
Dallas absolutely has to win the game. Doing it in a shootout should make no difference because the Stars will almost certainly own the first tiebreak—but they must win it.
Dallas plays Nashville and St. Louis, the best two teams in the NHL Central, to finish the season. Points will be too hard to come by and time is too short to miss opportunities to close the gap on the playoffs.
However, the Sharks will likely need to earn at least one point on the road down the stretch to make the playoffs. If they do not get it against Dallas, a team they have dominated, they will need to get it against the better team they have not dominated.
L.A. was red hot after the trade for Jeff Carter, winning 10 of his first 13 games with the team. The Kings may be cooling off lately, as they are 2-2-1 in their last five, but the Sharks cannot afford to leave things to chance, or many of them will be let go by the organization.
If the Sharks get that one point their chances of making the playoffs improve dramatically. If they get two, they nearly eliminate the competition for the final playoff spot and put themselves in position to win the division.
Tune in to see which Sharks team stands up Tuesday night at 5:30 p.m. PDT in Dallas: division contender, playoff contender or pretender.