Turn up the Heatley, Boyle a pot of stew, pour a cup of Joe, and open a bottle of Marleau—the San Jose Sharks are finally home for a while.
The frequent flyer team, with 18 of their first 28 games on the road, had one six game Eastern conference swing and two three-game trips into the Eastern Time Zone in the first two months of the season. Now they will play 21 of their next 28 games in the friendly confines of the Shark Tank.
Then again, maybe they should stay on the road. The Sharks are 11-5-2 in unfriendly territory, a point percentage of .667, behind only the Calgary Flames among Western Conference teams who have to travel over three time zones. Moreover, they are 10-2-2 away from the Tank in the last 55 days.
San Jose should be home to a lot of winning for its Sharks from now through February 2, 2010, since the team is the second-best home team in the league (8-1-2; Chicago is 10-1-3) and best over the past 14 months. At their current pace, they should amass 44 more points in the 27 home games between now and then, and 54 overall.
Even without games at home, the Sharks have the league's best record, whether measured by the NHL's archaic and misleading points system that rewards a team higher standing for having one more overtime loss in four more games played than a competitor, or by point percentage, which is how any reasonable system would gauge success.
Thus, they project to increasing their 42 points to 96 by the time the evening news in the home state of Joe Pavelski and me reports on Jimmy the Groundhog's predictions regarding winter. Last season, that would have been good enough for the sixth seed in the West, and there will be a third of the season left to play.
Don't get me wrong: I am still nervous about the Sharks' ability to play this well in the playoffs. However, last season when the team was running away with the President's Trophy by February, the situation was very different:
- The team had played mostly home games.
- They had a stretch coming up in which they played 32 games in 63 days to end the season, wearing them down.
- They did not experience many injuries until March. This year, they have fought through many key players missing significant time. Rob Blake, Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi, and Torrey Mitchell all see special teams action (either power play, penalty kill, or both) and have missed over ten games each.
- They are no longer dominating teams, rarely out-shooting them 2:1 as they often did last season, and having to battle out victories. They rank only 12th in shots per game and 18th in shots yielded, a far cry from their second and first place rankings, respectively, last season.
One thing that is very much like last year is the number of players seeing the scoresheet. Three players—Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley—have all scored more than a point a game. Marleau and Heatley are in the top three in the league in goals scored, Marleau and Thornton are in points, and Thornton leads the league with more than an assist per game.
But there is also secondary scoring: 21 players have scored a goal, and seven have scored more than five. There are 24 players who have scored either a goal or two points, and 10 who are in the double digits in scoring, including three defencemen, one of whom is a rookie that was not projected to make the roster this offseason.
Furthermore, only Scott Nichol, who because of his defence pulls the most difficult assignments, is below a -2 rating. Thanks to better role players than in years passed, the team is well-balanced, ranking in the top quarter in goals scored (second, 3.38) and goals against (seventh, 2.55) average, power play (fifth, 23.5 percent) and penalty kill (first, 86 percent), and faceoffs (first, 56.4 percent).
Perhaps most encouraging to me, as someone who firmly believes that Evgeni Nabokov cannot play more than about 85 games including the postseason and still be effective, is the play of backup netminder Thomas Greiss. This was the weakness that had me putting the Anaheim Ducks, with two great goalies, ahead of the Sharks in the standings.
That looks pretty dumb right now, with San Jose having the league's best record and the Ducks being 13th in the Western Conference, but it's still early. Nevertheless, the Ducks do have the look of a team that lacks skilled defencemen and is aging in key positions, while the Sharks look like a team that is coming of age.
Greiss, for instance, has seen limited action but is 3-2 with a .902 save percentage and a 2.96 goals against average. That would not inspire confidence were the team needing to count on him because of an injury to Nabby, but it is more than enough to allow Nabby to avoid playing on back-to-back nights or ever pulling four games in a week.
That would leave him with 68 games in the regular season, meaning unless the Sharks became the first team ever to play four full seven-game series, Nabby could avoid exceeding the 85-game threshold.
Now that the team has shown more grit, the one lingering Achilles Heel is Nabby's ability to handle the load. It is the biggest key to this team going deep in the playoffs.