The San Jose Sharks have had a lot of defining moments so early in the season.
After struggling for three of the first four games, the team faced a good news/bad news outlook—times three.
Good news: Martin Havlat and Antti Niemi were now healthy enough to play. Bad news: San Jose's biggest problem was chemistry, and more changes might slow that.
Good news: October ended with a road trip that provided the opportunity to gel. Bad news: 1-3 could become 2-7-1 by the end of the road trip because four of the six opponents are likely playoff teams.
Good news: San Jose overcame a slow start last season to finish as the Western Conference second seed. Bad news: Todd McLellan and Doug Wilson believe that digging out of that hole may have been the reason the team ran out of gas in the Vancouver series.
Last year, the Pacific was the best division in hockey, coming within a Dallas overtime goal of having all five teams from a division make the playoffs for the first time ever. This season, it is nearly that good again.
You just cannot start in that kind of hole in this division.
The Sharks responded on the road trip, taking the first five games in different ways. They were already a cohesive unit, and once again could be considered a top contender.
After struggling for the first period of the homestand, the Sharks were looking at dropping back out of the playoff picture. They responded again over the next 40 minutes for the comeback win.
They played a strong game against the Nashville Predators for the first two periods and were staked to a 3-1 lead early in the third.
Then things stated to unravel.
Nashville needed just 2:05 from the Sharks' third-period goal to get its first response, and had another just 3:01 later. San Jose hung on until the end of the period, but lost less than three minutes into overtime, being out-shot 15-7 after their last score.
Nashville still had fewer shots (35-38) and attempts (55-69), but more blocks (19-11) and hits (19-16). This is in large part because the Sharks won the faceoff battle 35-23 and had twice Nashville's four takeaways (and also twice their seven giveaways).
San Jose did not score on its four power plays, nor was scored on in its three penalties.
After playing well in only four of six-plus periods in the homestand, the Sharks are at another crossroads. To be a division and conference contender, they have to be consistent.
At the beginning of the season, analysts were split on who would lead the Pacific Division. The votes would have seemed a lot like any of the last five for president—two candidates get almost every vote, with only a minute percentage going to one or more others.
You might hear an occasional vote for the Anaheim Ducks, but almost everyone was picking the San Jose Sharks or Los Angeles Kings. It was noted that the season finale between the two might well determine the winner.
Thus, they are following a Stanley Cup preview with a Pacific Division title fight.
Yes, it is incredibly early for any game to decide a division. But any loss at home to a team one might expect to be battling until the last game of the season could be the difference between a top-three seed and being a road team from the first round.
The early games count just as much as the last one.
Coming off a loss and playing the top contender at 7:30 pm PST Monday, November 7, it is time for San Jose to respond again.
The Sharks will emerge victorious as long as they do not have to wait until the shootout, where Kings goalie Jonathan Quick is nearly unbeaten.