The continued strong play of Antti Niemi is the biggest single reason the Sharks are now leading the Pacific Division
The San Jose Sharks may want to ask the NHL to move some of their home games. With the third best road record in the NHL, they may be sorry they have only seven left in their final 20 games.
In back-to-back nights, the Sharks could have been forgiven for losing one or even both games against two of the top five teams in the NHL, since they were in their eighth and ninth road games of February. Instead, they captured their sixth and seventh wins to hit 20 road victories for the fifth consecutive season, the best active streak in the league.
Goalie Antti Niemi has been in net for all 12 games since the All Star break and the five before it, during which the Sharks have earned 29 of a possible 34 points, an .853 point percentage.
Questions arose in previous years about the heavy workload of goalie Evgeni Nabokov because no goalie has won a Stanley Cup after playing more than 68 regular season games beyond the age of 31 in the expansion era. But Nemo is just 27 and would play in no more than 61 games this season.
Once Anterro Niittymaki regains his health, if he merely spells Nemo for the team's three remaining back-to-back nights from March 14 through April 9, that may be enough. Chances are coach Todd McLellan would be able to give him more rest and avoid having the same goalie in net for 34 of the team's last 37 games.
However, that may be harder than one would think given Nemo appears to be getting stronger throughout the stretch. During those 17 games, he has a 1.85 goals against average and .939 save percentage, with three shutouts and only three games with under a .900 save percentage.
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Moreover, all three of those shutouts have come in the last nine games, during which he has surrendered only 13 goals. Even on the second night of back-to-back games, he has a .930 save percentage and 2.28 GAA.
But it has not been all goaltending giving the Sharks their success. San Jose is frequently taking care of the puck better than their opponents. For example, in Detroit and Pittsburgh the Sharks combined for five giveaways and 11 takeaways, compared to their opponents' collective 13 and seven, respectively.
While the Sharks uncharacteristically lost one more faceoff than they won over those two games, that skill has been prevalent over the stretch to help them control the game. It is a cause of them being out-hit on a regular basis, an effect of which is staying out of the box: Detroit and Pittsburgh both had four more penalty minutes than their guests.
That helped the Shrks out-shoot their opponents 81-64, yet they still blocked more shots (31-29). This has been a trend, and obviously contributes to the success on the scoreboard: In 10 of the 17 games (all wins) in the stretch they have gotten to the magic three goals; six times, they have scored four or more.
The total of 50 goals over that time is a modest increase of three total goals. But in a tight Western Conference race, that can be the difference between third and eighth place.
The Sharks are getting their scoring from varied sources. After scoring five goals and eight points in a seven-game scoring streak, Logan Couture cooled off with three straight scoreless games. But he now has six points in the four games that followed, coinciding with Devin Setoguchi's current three-game streak (five goals, one assist).
San Jose has also predictably gotten three-game scoring streaks out of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski during that period. But more surprisingly, Kent Huskins joined that group, including his first two goals of the season.
Unfortunately, Huskins is now hurt, as is penalty killer Scott Nichol. But with the additions of Ben Eager and Kyle Wellwood, the team is able to absorb those losses and find enough supporting cast to even overcome the recent scoring struggles of Dan Boyle and continuing relative drought for Dany Heatley (only 20 goals, though he is second on the team in scoring with 49 points).
The Sharks are also improving on their terrible third-period goal differential, not having been outscored in that period over the last five games while winning three that were tied at the end of two.
San Jose plays their final game of the month Friday in Calgary at 6pm PST. Similar to the Sharks who were sitting at 12th in the West before their 17-game stretch, the Flames are 11-3-1 in their previous 15 games and have climbed right back into the playoff race.
After that matchup, the road-weary Sharks will have been tested enough for the playoffs, becoming accustomed to winning the kind of tight games they will see in April and May. At the same time, they will have only four road games in March and should also be rested enough for the playoffs.
All that remains to be seen if they still have the talent to be one of the last two teams standing.