With the playoff race already heating up, the NHL has seen fit to add a little more spice by having the best team (the San Jose Sharks) in the best division in hockey (the Pacific) playing its rivals for the final eight games of the season.
Good call. All five teams are in the playoff hunt and three are in legitimate contention for the division title.
The Sharks currently hold a two-game lead over the red-hot Phoenix Coyotes, but they face that team three times in the final eight games of the regular season. The lead over the Los Angeles Kings is also two games, and the Sharks face LA twice more.
With the Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks on the edge of the playoff picture, the Sharks have three games left—one versus Dallas and two with Anaheim—against desperate teams that know how to play them. San Jose thus has a chance to get revenge on two of its last three opponents by keeping them from even going to the playoffs.
But first the Sharks have to play host to the Calgary Flames Wednesday night.
Calgary is tied with Anaheim in points in the standings for the final playoff spot in the West. However, they have played a whopping three more games than their counterpart from California.
The only reason the Flames are legitimately in the playoff picture is that they end the season with four games against non-playoff teams (Colorado, St. Louis and Edmonton twice). They also have one more against a team (Vancouver) unlikely to have anything to play for on the final day of the season.
What is the Sharks biggest weakness entering the home stretch?
Calgary can ill afford to give away any points with so many teams in the hunt. Thus, they represent the kind of team the Sharks are likely to see in the first round of the playoffs, and provide a better test than their past two foes.
The Sharks just got victories against the Blues and Wild, who have now combined for eight more losses than wins including overtime and shootouts. The Sharks virtually took the third period off against the Blues with a 5-1 lead, being out-shot 15-5.
Nevertheless, San Jose outscored the Blue and Wild 8-5, out-shot them 84-75, and had 22 more shot attempts. The Sharks won over 65 percent of faceoffs and had 10 more takeaways with only 13 more giveaways, four fewer blocked shots and four fewer hits despite so much more time with the puck.
That is not going to happen against playoff teams.
Since all of the teams remaining on the Sharks' schedule are likely to have something left to play for in the tight Western Conference, the readiness of this team for the playoffs will be known before the postseason begins.
The Sharks are being further tested by their own depleted roster, but no players are expected to miss playoff time. They are getting Dany Heatley back from suspension in time for Wednesday's tilt, but it looks like they will be without Logan Couture for some time with a knee—er, lower body—injury, though it looks like not as long as originally feared.
Couture plays on both the power play and penalty kill, which are the areas suffering most from the Sharks recent spate of injuries.
In six games without Dan Boyle, the Sharks power play actually gave up as many goals as it scored. Without Scott Nichol and Kent Huskins, the penalty kill has gone from 10th in the league to 23rd.
Niclas Wallin is also out after taking a shot from behind from Jamie Langenbrunner in the same game in which Heatley got his suspension; he and Nichol are already skating and their return is imminent. Couture is listed as day-to-day and Huskins is skating on his own but not in team drills.