In about 27 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, the San Jose Sharks exerted themselves as the team to beat in a Pacific Division full of playoff contenders, standing just a half-game behind the slumping Dallas Stars.
The Sharks have now run their winning streak to five games and are 9-0-1 in their last 10 after beating the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets on back-to-back nights on the road.
They have now taken the first four games of their seven-game trip, bringing their road record to 17-9-3, which is 80 percentage points higher than their home record (13-10-3).
Three of those four wins have come against teams currently in the playoff picture, along with six out of the nine in the point streak. San Jose has two non-playoff teams coming up, the red-hot New Jersey Devils and the Florida Panthers, before finishing up against the team directly behind them, the Nashville Predators.
San Jose has done it with defense, having allowed only 19 goals in the 10-game streak. Antti Niemi has played every game in net because of the injury to Anterro Niittymaki (aggravated in warm-up before the win in Washington) and has two shutouts of top ten scoring teams.
But he is not doing it alone. San Jose's blue line is getting to rebounds and blocking shots. Despite being out-shot in the two games 69-68, the Sharks had a 44-32 edge in blocks. They are also winning faceoffs, holding a 72-46 (.610) edge.
Two things they need to work on is puck control and hits. Their opponents combined for 10 giveaways and 20 takeaways in the two games compared to the Sharks nine and 10, and had a 61-38 edge in hits. Despite this, the Sharks had one more penalty in each game and the resulting power plays generated both goals San Jose yielded.
Against Washington, Logan Couture and Dan Boyle scored, giving Couture the league lead in game-winning goals on the road. Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Kent Huskins and Ben Eager had assists.
In Columbus, the Sharks responded to a 2-0 first period deficit by characteristically putting up two (Huskins' first of the year and Kyle Wellwood's second) in the second period, the period that has been their best over the course of the season.
Recently, they have also been playing strongly in the third and while they were outshot 16-9 in the final 20 minutes, they scored the only goal when Patrick Marleau shot through a Joe Pavelski screen for the game-winner. Both added another assist, as did Clowe and Couture.
Carter Hutton was dressed as Niemi's backup for this game and it appears likely Nemo will be in net for every game until at least Feb. 23, the second of back-to-back performances on the road (Detroit and Pittsburgh). Alex Stalock, the top prospect in the Sharks system, may be out the rest of the season with an injury suffered earlier this week.
Finally, the Sharks traded D Jay Leach and C Steven Zalewski for RW Patrick Davis and C Mike Swift. The two have a total of nine games of NHL experience and those traded had just 31 between them, so this figures to have little impact on the NHL teams.