What a difference a fortnight makes.
On March 13, the Sharks went into the last game of their homestand having set an NHL record with three consecutive third-period comeback victories. Two of these comebacks even happened against probable playoff teams.
When they started the game that afternoon with a 2-0 lead over the Florida Panthers, the problems of their slow starts appeared to be in the rear-view mirror. Then they seemed to be headed for an early exit to the season.
Florida came back with a goal in all three remaining periods—including the short overtime—to win the game. The Sharks' poor finish was followed by the team falling in a 3-0 deficit against rival Anaheim the very next day (a game they lost 4-2) and their worst loss of the season (an 8-2 debacle in Dallas) just two days after that.
The Sharks continued the pattern of poor starts by falling into a 2-0 deficit in the first five games of the road trip, losing all five. It was the first time this team lost five games in a row in regulation for every player on the roster except veterans Evgeni Nabokov and Patrick Marleau.
More to the point—in the NHL's ridiculous method of tracking standings, at least—they were behind Phoenix for the division lead: San Jose was one point back but with two fewer games played, or a half-game ahead by the standards of a more rational sport. Phoenix also led in the first tie-break, wins.
Along the way, the Sharks were losing to sub-standard competition, including the worst team in the league. Only one of the six opponents, the Vancouver Canucks, is currently in the playoff picture; only one other team, the Calgary Flames, has any real chance of getting in.
During the stretch, San Jose gave up a whopping 27 goals and scored just 12. The Sharks' power play was two for its last 20 chances, and gave up exactly as many shorthanded goals in that span.
Even two of the Sharks' season-long unbeaten streaks—when Marleau, Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton combine on a goal and when the Sharks get into more than one fight—were broken.
Ironically, the Sharks were never out-shot during the stretch, and even the trademark giveaways that kill the team did not appear to be problems on the stat sheet. However, the Sharks' turnovers always seemed to be more costly than those of their opponents.
More telling was that San Jose was out-hit the first four times in the six-game streak, and the Sharks' opponents blocked more shots in every game. In the last two, the opposition outworked the Sharks to the tune of a whopping 46-10 edge in this ultimate indicator of how much a team is willing to sacrifice to succeed.
It is these willpower issues that have brought about early playoff departures for San Jose in the past four seasons. It may be better the Sharks have these struggles now, but they did struggle in February and/or March in all four of those seasons, too.
The Sharks had one more chance to keep the road trip from being a complete failure Tuesday night in Minnesota. To read a recap of how they fared against former assistant coach Brad Richards' Wild and get a preview of Thursday's game against Dallas, please visit Shark-Infested Blogger.