Friday, the San Jose Sharks came from behind to win a shootout in Calgary against the red hot Flames. It made for a very successful month, and should be a sign that they have all the pieces in place to contend.
- The team has two defencemen (White and Dan Boyle) who are very good offensively and solid in their own end. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is very good in his own end and solid offensively. Kent Huskins, Douglas Murray, and Niklas Wallin are all at least good defensively and not completely worthless offensively, and Jason Demers and Justin Braun are good offensively and not completely worthless defensively. This adds up to a blueline which is in the top third of the league.
- The Sharks have seven forwards (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi, and Kyle Wellwood) under 33 years old who have scored over 40 points at least once in their careers. Three others (Scott Nichol, Ben Eager, and Jamal Mayers) are widely known as very successful penalty-killers. There are three others (Torrey Mitchell, Benn Ferriero, and Jamie McGinn) talented enough to call the team's forwards both skilled and deep, among the NHL's elite.
- San Jose has a Stanley Cup winning goalie in Antti Niemi playing fantastic hockey right now and has a very good backup in Anterro Niittymaki (once healthy). They also have the option of bringing in last year's backup, Thomas Greiss, once his season in Europe ends. This adds up to goaltending that is good on top and deep enough to sustain injury, placing it in the top third of the league.
Moreover, the Sharks are where they need to be in the standings. If they continue leading the division, they are assured of less travel in the spread out Western Conference and home ice in at least the first round.
Furthermore, San Jose is playing the kind of hockey they need to be playing. They have captured over 86 percent of the possible points in the standings over the last 18 games because they have never given up more than three goals and are playing sound fundamental hockey.
Where will the Sharks finish the regular season?
It is understandable that they would be consistently out-shooting their opponents (33-24 Friday) given that they usually win the faceoff battle (34-29), even on the road, and are taking care of the puck (just four giveaways in Calgary). What's strange by NHL standards, is they routinely have more blocked shots than teams they out-shoot (17-14 Friday).
In years past, the Sharks have often found the game too easy, cutting through the regular season like a hot knife through butter en route to a Pacific Division title, but are unable to handle the difficulty of the playoffs. Through the adversity they have faced, they have learned how to win close games, with half their wins coming in one-goal games; they are 15-8 in them since Thanksgiving.
But the most important piece of the puzzle may be the Sharks schedule. After battling through 10 of their last 12 on the road, the Sharks have no road trips beyond two games or beyond the Central Time Zone, and they only have six remaining road games among their remaining 19.
Since the Sharks have been one of the league's best road teams, logically one must think this should help them make a push in the standings (click the following link to see where I have them finishing the regular season in the Western Conference standings). It certainly will enable them to be rested enough come playoff time.
With a run to the final four teams last season, the Sharks also have the deep playoff experience it takes to win in May. They shook their playoff demons and split two series against the past three Western Conference winners. They even have a Cup winner in net, two on the blueline, and two among forwards.
That puts the team where they want to be in roster, standings, current play, adversity overcome, schedule, and experience - all the makings of a deep playoff run in 2011.