There are only five games left in the 2013 NHL season for the San Jose Sharks. Some of their competitors have six, but all are close enough to get a fairly clear image of the Stanley Cup playoff picture in the Western Conference.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks have basically wrapped up the first and second spots, respectively. The Vancouver Canucks could be caught by the Minnesota Wild but are two games up and will in all likelihood finish third.
The Sharks are in fifth in the official standings but would be sixth if the NHL did their standings reasonably. Point percentage is the measuring stick in every other sport and should be all the more in a league that averages more than a point per game in hand because of overtime losses.
Either way, their magic number is down to five prior to hosting the Wild Thursday, April 18. That means .500 hockey guarantees them a berth even if the teams outside the playoff picture win every game.
Thus, San Jose will be in the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. But making what could become an NHL-leading active streak of nine tournaments in a row has never been the goal of this team.
Their 2012 playoff run lasted a franchise-low five games. Coming off consecutive conference finals, it was natural that questions arose as to whether one of the older teams in the NHL had already seen its best days.
Facing almost certain and drastic changes over the next two summers because of salary-cap situations, this team cannot go out with a whimper. It is only natural to look ahead to the potential first-round matchups to see what kind of challenge awaits to avoid a quick dismissal.
Before we can know what team the Sharks will face, we have to figure out the rest of the field.
The St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings stand with them in the virtual tie for fourth through sixth and are clearly going to be playing in May. Chances are they and the Wild will finish seventh, but any of the four could finish in almost any order. So how will it play out?
San Jose is the hottest team in the Western Conference other than Chicago over the last 10 games (7-2-1). They are the the best home team in the NHL (making for a dangerous first round for lower-seeded opponents) and have three of their final five are at home.
All five foes are ranked lower in the NHL standings and two of them will probably be out of the picture by the time the game starts. This should allow the Sharks to edge out the Kings, who have two home games versus desperate teams, back-to-back road games against playoff teams and one at home against the rival Sharks, whom they have struggled against.
Still, the Sharks will only creep up to fifth because the Blues should finish fourth. They are almost as hot at 7-3-0. They also have three games left against the bottom three in the Western Conference, including their only road game.
That limits their realistic first-round opponents to the Canucks, Wild, Kings or Blues. Here are each of those matchups in more detail, listed in order of likelihood: