Worst to First: Top 10 Moments in San Jose Sharks' Rise to Pacific Division Lead
The San Jose Sharks have been on a torrential tear since mid-January, going 15-2-1 over their last 18 games—chomping up 31 of 36 possible points to rise from worst to first in the Pacific Division. Over the same time, they have gone from No. 11 in the Western Conference to No. 3, sitting just four points behind the Detroit Red Wings, who occupy the No. 2 position.
When the Sharks entered this stretch, they had only won four games in a row once on the year and were reeling from a six-game losing streak, matching the longest swoon they suffered in 2009-2010. With a punishing February schedule that included a seven-game East Coast road trip, the Sharks' playoff lives seemed in serious jeopardy for the first time in half a decade.
The Sharks would defy both odds and logic in authoring one of their most impressive stretches in franchise history to surge solidly back into the playoff race and establish themselves as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Here is a look back at the improbable turnaround:
January 15, 2011: Sharks 4, St. Louis Blues 2
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Coming off a six-game losing streak—a season-long skid that matched last season's low point—the Sharks entered a home game against the St. Louis Blues looking for a win to right their ship. They would find just that.
Mired in an uncharacteristically cold season, forward Dany Heatley would emerge for one of his best nights of the year. Heatley scored twice, including the eventual game-winner, to key the Sharks to a 4-2 slump-busting win before a very relieved home crowd.
Few could have guessed the magnitude of the momentum that win would create.
February 1, 2011: Sharks 5, Phoenix Coyotes 3
In the first game back from what was a relatively quiet All Star break for the Sharks (with only Dan Boyle and Logan Couture traveling to Raleigh, NC), the Sharks emerged suspectly flat in a home game against their division rival Phoenix Coyotes. The Coyotes would outwork the Sharks through much of the first half of the game and enjoyed a seemingly daunting 3-0 lead midway through the second period.
Sharks head coach Todd McLellan then made a predictable decision—benching goaltender Antti Niemi. With Antero Niittymaki still on injured reserve, the Sharks were forced to turn to rookie Alex Stalock to make his NHL debut in net.
The change in net shook the team up, and they authored an inspired comeback in front of a nine-save performance by Stalock to notch his first and only NHL win to date. Patrick Marleau would net the eventual game-winner short-handed as the Sharks earned a regulation 5-3 win to help jumpstart the stretch run and improve their Pacific Division standings.
February 2, 2011: Sharks 4, Anaheim Ducks 3
The Sharks rode the momentum of the win over Phoenix into the Honda Center the following night and staged a dramatic win over another division rival—the Anaheim Ducks.
Early on, it looked like the game might be a rare easy victory for the Sharks, as they scored less than a minute into the first period and chased former playoff nemesis Jonas Hiller with three goals in the first. But the Ducks would prove the Sharks were not the only team capable of playing their way back from a 3-0 deficit.
Backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney would turn in a gritty one-goal-allowed performance the rest of the way, and the Ducks gave the Sharks all they could handle, staging a strong late-game push with the Sharks ultimately surviving to win 4-3.
February 8, 2011: Sharks 2, Washington Capitals 0
The Sharks began the East Coast swing of their season-long seven-game road trip with a pair of tough Eastern Conference games in Boston and Washington. Not only did they win both, but they did so with style.
Antti Niemi proved slightly better than All Star game winner Tim Thomas in Boston as the Sharks won 2-0 (with an empty-net goal) and then stifled Alexander Ovechkin as the Sharks finally got the better of a very pesky Michal Neuvirth to post a second consecutive 2-0 decision in Washington.
Despite back-to-back shutouts, Niemi was not named first-star in either game—a testament to the strong team play of the Sharks in this pair of tight games.
The win over the Columbus Blue Jackets the following night capped a 9-0-1 streak for San Jose, with the only blemish coming in a fluky shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings where the Sharks' shooters simply could not solve Jonathan Quick.
February 13, 2011: Sharks 2, Florida Panthers 3
All good things come to an end, and the Sharks' season-long point streak was no exception. The Sharks suffered consecutive losses to two non-elite though dangerously hot Eastern opponents: the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers.
The Sharks held leads in both contests but could not sustain them even long enough to salvage a point for taking either game to overtime. The come-from-behind performances for the opposition would be the start of a disturbing trend which has continued to nag the Sharks despite their recent wins.
Though the Sharks had pulled into a tie with the Dallas Stars entering the New Jersey game, after the loss to the Panthers, they found themselves right back at the bottom of a Pacific Division race where only three points stood between first and last place. They also slipped back to the fringe of the playoff race—a sobering reminder of just how important protecting potential wins will continue to be down the stretch.
February 15, 2011: Sharks 2, Nashville Predators 1, OT
The Sharks closed out their long road trip against a tough Western Conference opponent in the Nashville Predators. The Sharks needed a win to break their two-game losing streak and help gain points against a team with whom they are still directly competing for playoff position.
The game proved to be another tight one.
The Sharks peppered goaltender Pekka Rinne with 45 shots (in regulation), but could not keep the game from going to overtime tied at 1. The game looked destined to end in a shootout until defenseman Kent Huskins stole the puck and sent a head-man feed to Patrick Marleau, who ended the game with a brilliant breakaway goal.
The win lifted the Sharks to an impressive 5-2 mark on their longest trip of the year.
February 19, 2011: Sharks 4, Colorado Avalanche 0
The Sharks finally made a long-anticipated trade to bolster their defense on February 18, sending a second-round draft pick to the Carolina Hurricanes for puck-moving defensemen Ian White. The Sharks would welcome their newest teammate with a resounding win.
In the second game of a brief two-game home stand, the Sharks rode another impressive effort from Antti Niemi to a solid 4-0 shutout win over last year's first-round playoff opponents: the Colorado Avalanche. Ian White recorded an assist in his first game with the Sharks as Devin Setoguchi recorded his first NHL hat- trick.
February 22, 2011: Sharks 4, Detroit Red Wings 3
Winning at Joe Louis Arena is never easy. For the Sharks, that is usually especially true.
The Sharks purged some of their historical demons by beating the Red Wings dramatically in five games in last year's Western Conference Semifinals, but they still won just one game on road ice. That experience, however, may have given them the confidence to think they could truly beat the Red Wings from now on, rather than just hoping to contend with them as in the past.
The win was not an easy one.
The Red Wings answered two early goals by the Sharks and trimmed a late 4-2 lead to one goal with several quality chances to tie late in the game. Nonetheless, the Sharks showed great resolve in fending off the vaunted Red Wings to truly earn a 4-3 win. The win drew the Sharks closer to the West's No. 2 position and marked the first time in history the Sharks had swept the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena in the regular season.
February 23, 2011: Sharks 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 2, OT
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The Sharks completed the second game in two nights against two of the last three Stanley Cup champions with a thrilling overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Logan Couture missed an opportunity at an empty-net goal that could have iced the game with just over a minute to play, and the Penguins made him pay, scoring with 50 seconds remaining to extend the game to overtime. As in Nashville a week earlier, Patrick Marleau had a golden opportunity to end the game on a late breakaway, thanks to yet another takeaway by captain Joe Thornton (a category in which he leads the NHL). Unlike in the Nashville game, he failed to beat Marc-Andre Fleury, and it seemed the game was destined for the shootout.
Marleau was not to be denied, however, as he found the puck on a rebound with just four seconds to play, beating Fleury and ending the game, netting the Sharks their 20th road win. The goal extended a stretch of strong play from Marleau in clutch situations.
February 25, 2011: Sharks 4, Calgary Flames 3, S.O.
Calgary's Pengrowth/Scotiabank Saddledome has also been an historically unkind building to the Sharks, but this most recent road trip proved to be themed around reversing historical trends.
The Sharks jumped out to early 1-0 and 2-1 leads against the Flames, but two Calgary goals scored less than two minutes apart in the second period suddenly landed the Sharks in a 3-2 hole entering the third, having to beat former teammate and perennial All-Star Miikka Kiprusoff to avoid a loss. Kiprusoff fought off several stunning scoring chances and looked almost sure to be destined to get the better of the Sharks on this night, but Ryane Clowe simply would not have it.
Clowe scored with just 2:34 to play to tie the game, and after a scoreless overtime and two scoreless shootout rounds, Clowe made a dazzling backhand-to-forehand dangle move that soundly fooled Kiprusoff. Niemi stopped Olli Jokinen for the win. The Sharks finished the brief road trip with a perfect 3-0 record, and the win tied a franchise record for road wins in a month with eight.
Where Are They Now?
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The Sharks’ meteoric rise over their last 18 games has been nothing short of incredible. They currently sit four points behind the Red Wings for second in the West and have built up an eight-point cushion over the ninth-place Chicago Blackhawks.
The playoffs now seem all but certain, but the Sharks still have plenty to work on before mid-April rolls around. They may or may not decide to make a last-minute deal at the trade deadline, but regardless there are two major questions they must answer before the playoffs start.
The Sharks have been consistently unable to hold leads. While they have still been able to persevere and finds ways to win, one must wonder whether those second-chances will be there come playoff time. The Sharks need to figure out why they have been so susceptible when playing with the lead and find a way to correct that.
Antti Niemi has also been shouldering an incredible workload of late, as he has started the last 21 consecutive games for the Sharks. Having played just 61 games last year, including a 22-game playoff run, how long can the Sharks continue to rely on Niemi with such regularity?
The Sharks have shown some impressive signs that this may truly be a different type of team than the ones that have suffered such regular and disappointing letdowns in April and May in the past. They still have some major questions, though, and only time will tell how this historic 20th year of Sharks hockey ultimately ends. Hopefully, it turns out to be more than just a milestone.
Keep the Faith!