The San Jose Sharks faced a critical barometer of their mettle Monday night when they played host to the division-leading Los Angeles Kings.
A win would not only net the Sharks nine of a possible 10 points on their five-game homestand, but would prove their ability to contend against top competition while drawing them within four points of the division leaders.
The Sharks responded in spades. After a disappointing overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks last Thursday night and a narrow win to avenge their 4-0 loss earlier this season in Calgary, the Sharks closed the homestand in high style, burying the Kings with an offensive barrage and stemming the tide of a potential comeback to win 6-3 in regulation.
Perhaps more important even than the final outcome or score was the way the Sharks played in light of heavy adversity throughout the game.
The Sharks were forced to play without the services of their third-best defenseman in Douglas Murray, who was scratched due to a day to day lower body injury. Experienced stand-in Derek Joslin filled in admirably, contributing to a strong defensive effort and adding an assist.
The game did not start as the Sharks had hoped, with Scott Parse opening scoring at 16:33 of the first period, but the Sharks responded with goals from Ryane Clowe and Torrey Mitchell just 1:15 apart to lead 2-1 at the first intermission. They would not look back.
Despite a delayed goal awarded to the Kings' Ryan Smyth which erased Torrey Mitchell's second tally of the night and turned a potential 4-1 Sharks lead into a mere 3-2 lead at the second intermission, the Sharks would rebound to gain the lead 4-2 and 5-3 in the third period, before finally winning 6-3.
They did so by taking advantage of power play opportunities. The Sharks power play had struggled mightily in recent weeks, falling from first in the league to fifth, and those struggles looked poised to continue as they faced the top penalty kill in the NHL. However, such was not to be, as the Sharks scored two power goals, both of which came in the first 10 seconds of the penalty in the third period.
As attested by the TV crew in the post-game show, to a man the Sharks fielded their finest performance of the young season in perhaps their biggest game yet. Their defense was strong, their offense was punishing and their special teams play lived up to its name. Stars played like stars and role players stepped it up.
The only question is: Can they build on this performance?
The Sharks have rarely had to face a game in which they stood to gain ground on a division leader in recent years, having grown accustomed to leading the Pacific Division wire to wire. The fact that they could muster such a resounding effort in such an unfamiliar situation should bode well for the rest of the season, but after all it was only one game and a home game to boot.
Excluding the games in Sweden, the win over the Kings boosted the Sharks to 6-2-1 at home, but they have only managed a pedestrian 3-3-0 on the road. Having been one of the toughest road teams in hockey over the last half-decade, that could easily improve, and it must if the Sharks hope to improve their postseason outlook.
While many fans seem all too happy to watch the Sharks claw their way to a lower Western Conference seed, convinced they will become just the second team in 20 years to win a Stanley Cup from a No. 5 seed or lower, history holds that—by and large—Stanley Cup winners generally win their division.
So where does that leave the Sharks? If they can parlay the momentum of this huge win into greater success in the weeks and months to come, the Pacific Division crown is easily within reach.
One key aspect of the win against the Kings was the indication that many of the mental errors and execution lapses that haunted the Sharks in recent games had disappeared. The once-vaunted defense looks suddenly much improved and even Antti Niemi has put together back-to-back solid efforts.
If the Sharks can sustain all that, it could buy them more time to determine how to tweak the roster to get them over the top. That could be a huge advantage.
Many fans will hold the "expert" party line that a lower seed could be the Sharks' best weapon, that the division crown, home ice advantage, and rest in March and April are nothing but fruit of the poisoned tree.
But just as Sharks history has a way of repeating itself, so too does Stanley Cup history—and Stanley Cup history says lower seeds rarely succeed.
If the Sharks continue to play as they did against the Kings, they might not have to test this theory.
Keep the Faith!