The San Jose Sharks have been off since Saturday, giving their Pacific Division rivals a chance to narrow the gap in the official standings. In that time, all four have closed the gap, but it is not likely to be enough.
While the Anaheim Ducks have earned four points and have two games left against San Jose, they remain more than two games back and only have three left against other opponents. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes have earned two and are much closer to San Jose.
But while the Phoenix Coyotes have two games left against San Jose, they have two fewer remaining overall and are still two points behind. The Kings are three back with the same number to go as San Jose, but have only one head-to-head match-up left.
Which brings us to the Sharks' next opponent, the Dallas Stars. They earned just one point and are the top team not currently in the playoffs, leaving them as the last team that could knock the Sharks out of the playoff picture entirely.
With a regulation win at HP Pavilion, the Sharks clinch a playoff spot and move ahead of the Detroit Red Wings (10-3 losers at home to the St. Louis Blues Wednesday) into second in the West by a half-game. Dallas would join the Calgary Flames as the latest team out of the playoff picture, needing two more wins over the final six games than the Chicago Blackhawks.
If the Kings also lose in regulation at Vancouver, San Jose's magic number to win the division shrinks to seven. But San Jose would be wise not to be scoreboard-watching.
Dallas may be 1-3-3 in its last seven games while San Jose is 5-0-1 in its last six, including a road win March 15. However, the Stars are 3-1-1 against the Sharks (2-1-2 against Dallas) this season, and win the season series unless the Sharks get the win before a shootout.
One reason they have fared so well is the Sharks have struggled all season on the penalty kill against the Stars. They also have been horrible in the absence of Scotty Nichol and Kent Huskins over the last six weeks, and neither is expected back.
The Stars are expected to be without Niklas Grossman and Brian Sutherby, and may well still be without Adam Burish and Karlis Skrastins. But mostly they have been without scoring (eight goals over four games), with Brad Richards held scoreless in six games.
The work ethic of the desperate Stars will test San Jose, but expect the rested Sharks to weather an initial burst out of the gate by Dallas and emerge victorious, likely with another three-point Western Conference game (i.e. overtime or shootout).