The Sharks' recent stumble is a clear reminder of how little room for error exists in the playoff race.
Last Wednesday the San Jose Sharks were on top of the world. They had just completed their first five-game win streak of the season and earned their 19th point in ten games to pull into a temporary tie with the division-leading Dallas Stars.
The streak had propelled the Sharks from No. 11 to No. 4 in the Western Conference and re-established them in prime position to jockey for a top-four playoff spot down the stretch.
Just two games later, while the situation has not changed all that dramatically, the Sharks have received a sobering reminder of just how volatile the Western Conference playoff race will be this season. The Sharks suffered two difficult losses to the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers over the weekend, missing out on four points and remaining stuck at 66 on the season.
Such a minor setback—especially on the heels of a 9-0-1 stretch—usually would not be cause for alarm. This year is different, however.
The Sharks find themselves in the midst of a tightly-contested race for the right to return to the playoffs. Only 13 points separate the No. 2 Detroit Red Wings and the No. 12 Columbus Blue Jackets in the west, and the Pacific Division race is even tighter.
The Pacific Division is by far the most competitive in the NHL. Entering play Monday, only three points separated first and last place and only one team—the Los Angeles Kings—were outside of a playoff spot. The Sharks thus face a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full scenario.
While the Sharks face just two points of ground needing to be made up to catch the Stars for the division lead, they sit just one point ahead of the Kings—who hold a game in hand and also represent the No. 9 team in the west.
The tight quarters will certainly serve to provide some tense moments and pivotal match ups down the stretch—much to the delight of the NHL and the VS network—but could also serve as a perfect motivational balance for the Sharks.
The Sharks will almost certainly be forced to fight until the final week or perhaps even the final game of the season in order to secure a playoff spot. In recent seasons, the only drama in the final weeks or even months of the season has been whether or not the Sharks will fend off challengers to their possible No. 1 seed status. This has allowed the Sharks to rest and relax but has largely made them stale entering the playoffs, and resulted in disappointing final outcomes.
The Sharks will certainly have to be playing their best down the stretch simply to make the playoffs this year—a position they have not seen since 2005-2006. At the same time, however, only the No. 1 Vancouver Canucks look to be uncatchable. The Sharks will have enough pressure from teams chasing them to remain sharp, but can also feasibly finish as high as second in the conference and enter the playoffs with both polish and home-ice advantage. That is a combination the Sharks have never enjoyed.
The team is wrapping up their longest road trip of the season against the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, looking to end their brief skid while no doubt pondering whether outside help is on the way as the NHL trade deadline is now less than two weeks out. The games against the Devils and Panthers were particularly troubling because of the Sharks' inability to hold late road leads in each case.
While they dominated play for stretches of each contest and held third-period leads in both, defensive lapses resurfaced late in each game—leading to sustained stretches of five-on-five play where it appeared the Sharks were killing a penalty. The tough-luck outcomes highlighted the defensive liability that the recent 9-0-1 streak had masked to some degree—paying clear witness to the need for proven veteran defensive help. Doug Wilson has just over 13 shopping days left in which to find it.
Let us hope for the Sharks' sake it is a lucky 13.
Keep the Faith!