Breaking Down Potential First-Round Foes for San Jose Sharks
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:
St. Louis Blues
In the aforementioned scenario, the St. Louis Blues finish fourth to earn home ice in the first round against the San Jose Sharks.
The two teams could almost as easily finish the other way around and still play one another. The only way they do not match up is if one of them falls to sixth.
With as tight as the race is, odds are at least even that one of them will finish sixth. But that still leaves the Blues the single-most likely first-round opponent for the Sharks.
St. Louis is the team that knocked them out in record time last year. During the 2013 NHL season, the skate was on the other foot, as San Jose took two of three, including a rare regulation road win.
It is hard for teams to win in San Jose, so St. Louis might have trouble taking the series as a five seed. But if there is one matchup to avoid, it is this one.
The Blues were my pick early in the season to win the 2013 Stanley Cup because they added scoring to a team that plays playoff, lockdown defense. Now that they are getting good goaltending, they are once again a formidable team.
Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings are just about as likely to finish fourth or fifth as the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues are. They would match up against their Pacific Division rivals in the exact same situations, with virtually the same probability as finishing sixth.
However, they probably have the toughest road of the three (as detailed in the introduction slide). Thus they are being projected to finish sixth but are considered the second most-likely first-round matchup.
Many fans want their teams to avoid a first-round matchup with the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Kings have almost the same team that was good enough to dominate last tournament.
In addition to that playoff acumen, they also have better skating depth than the Sharks. However, not everything tips the scales their way.
Most notably, Antti Niemi has the same number of titles and has been much better this season than Jonathan Quick. But San Jose has also won six straight in this series. Both they and the Blues should be more desperate for a title, making the Kings a little better hurdle to clear.
There would also be substantially less travel, which should help the older team even in the first round, not to mention what it could do down the road.
The Vancouver Canucks beat the San Jose Sharks in five games to take the 2011 Western Conference title. There are a couple ways these teams could end up in a rematch.
The Canucks are two games up on the Minnesota Wild for the Northwest Division and what will be the third seed. While they will certainly lose a tiebreak if caught, there are only five games to go, their schedule is notably easier and they are playing better right now.
If they fail to win their division, the two teams could only meet as the fourth and fifth seeds in the Western Conference. It would require such a fall that the Sharks would certainly be the more likely winner in a battle of teams that give the impression their ships have sailed.
But as a division winner, the Canucks face one less game in the toughest building for road teams this season. Their opponent will be one that came out worst among the three teams fighting for home ice in the first round.
That would make this series less about personnel, how they fared in the season series (sweep for the Sharks) or offensive and defensive numbers. It would come down to how the teams were playing.
If the Minnesota Wild catch the Vancouver Canucks for the third seed in the Western Conference, they will either be very hot or have benefited from their rival going absolutely in the tank.
If that happens, the San Jose Sharks could meet them as a sixth seed. Much like the breakdown of a potential Vancouver series, that would mean they did not finish as strongly as they would have liked to going into the playoffs.
The chance of them meeting as four and five seeds is probably more remote, however. Minnesota would have to climb and San Jose would at least have to hold firm in the standings despite playing each other along the way. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues would both have to fall.
Even in that situation, Minnesota poses a tough challenge. Niklas Backstrom is tough for the Sharks to beat and has superior forwards facing counterpart Antti Niemi even without Dany Heatley, whose injury should provide fuel.
The Wild do not have the same blue-line depth, but this matchup would mean they are not only faster but hotter. For the Wild to climb above sixth would probably also mean they win the game Thursday, April 17 to become the only potential first-round foe to win the season series.