With just a handful of games left in regular season play, the Western Conference playoff picture is starting to take shape. Though likely nothing will be entirely certainly until the final horn sounds on April 6, mathematics and probabilities tell us that a few match-ups are all but inevitable.
Most Sharks fans are more than familiar with beloved SharkByte host, FSN Bay Area color analyst and (now) frequent chatboard blogger Drew Remenda, and will recall his vehement assurances that there are no easy opponents come April. Even Drew, however, would be hard-pressed not to admit that some match-ups benefit the boys in Teal more than others.
Here's a look at how the Western Conference playoff picture is shaking down, and what that means to your San Jose Sharks.
At the top of the division is perennial powerhouse Detroit, that, barring a minor miracle and a major meltdown, will certainly finish with the best record in the entire league, and will occupy the West's top seed. They'll likely face either Colorado or Vancouver, neither of whom have been consistently good, nor do they pose much threat to the Red Wings.
What makes things interesting is that the Sharks will likely find themselves in a first-round throwdown with whomever the Wings do not face.
San Jose has clearly had Vancouver's number this season, sweeping the season series and beating them soundly even when the team was struggling to find consistent offense. Granted, the Sharks didn't face Vezina candidate Roberto Luongo in net for all four contests, but when they did, he didn't exactly appear invincible.
Vancouver's offense has struggled mightily this season, failing to find any kind of consistent secondary scoring and relying heavily on the success of their talented Swedish twins, Daniel and Henrik Sedin. As many opponents, including the Sharks, have discovered this season, a neutralized Vancouver top line is a neutralized Vancouver offense.
If the Sharks do find themselves facing a red-hot Luongo, it will be absolutely essential to stay out of penalty trouble. If there's one part of Vancouver's game that the Sharks have struggled with over the past few seasons, it's been their power play. A very mobile defense, when healthy, could easily be all the Canucks would need for Luongo to steal a series.
Colorado has posed a bigger problem for the Sharks, who seem to struggle with their run-and-gun offense and impressive speed. The Avs aren't a great team in their own zone by any means, and their goaltending will forever be a question mark as long as the enigmatic Jose Theodore remains in net (despite his great hair), but they are as deep as anyone up front when they have a healthy squad at their disposal.
Ryan Smyth, Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk and Paul Statsny, are complimented nicely by talented sophomore Wojtek Wolski and veteran Andrew Brunette. They're a crew who knows how to win all through their impressive lineup, and they hold the playoff's most intriguing wild-card in the oft-injured Peter Forsberg, who, despite a rough go of it recently, still has the talent, ability and desire to turn an entire playoff series around with one well-placed shift.
While it is highly doubtful that the Avalanche could beat a motivated, hard-working Sharks team, they're not a first-round matchup that anyone relishes because their surprisingly low position in the standings certainly doesn't reflect their ability to win, especially when it matters.
Elsewhere in the West, it seems almost certain that Minnesota will meet Calgary in the first round. The only mystery is whether the series will start up north of the border or on American soil.
A Minnesota-Calgary series could really set the precedent for how NHL officials will call playoff hockey in 2008. Minnesota has more raw talent than the Flames, but one gets the impression that Calgary might be better built for the rough and tumble environment that comes with post-season play. If it's a tightly called series, it could swing in Minnesota's favor, but if the whistles are pocketed, we'll see at least one Canadian team in round two.
That leaves a pair of Pacific Division rivals to battle it out in the quarterfinals, with Dallas and defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim meeting up, likely in Southern California. Widely regarded as two of the favorites to go all the way, one big gun won't even make it out of the first round, which raises questions about what Dallas might want to do over their last few regular season games.
The Stars, who are currently five points out of fourth place, are highly unlikely to gain home ice advantage, which would make the difference between finishing fifth and finishing sixth fairly unimportant. So the Stars may well be asking themselves, why strive to stay ahead of Calgary or Minnesota for the fifth seed, when they could avoid Anaheim in the first round and let the Northeast Division runner-up face the defending champs?
Needless to say, no Dallas player nor anyone associated with the organization would ever suggest or condone such an idea, but one can guarantee that it's in the back of their minds one way or another.
If the Stars and Ducks do end up meeting early, it will be an absolutely epic series, and something that every hockey fan should enjoy thoroughly. Sharks fans in particular will relish the prospect of watching their team's two greatest rivals beat each other up for seven straight, especially since they'll more than likely see the bruised and battered victor before the playoffs are through.
So while Mr. Remenda is certainly right that there is no such thing as any easy road out of the West, things are definitely shaping up in favor of Team Teal. Perhaps with the right combination of luck, a convenient injury to Chris Pronger here and there, and of course, a genuine effort from our Sharks, this could be the year that Santa Clara Avenue is blocked off for one glorious June afternoon.