Why Anaheim and San Jose are battling to avoid Los Angeles

(Photo by Debora Robinson/NHL)

For the second night in a row, two of the NHL’s heavyweights collide in a crucial late-season showdown. St. Louis had a chance to bury Chicago last night, but the Blackhawks beat down the Blues 4-0 in a rather one-sided game between two of the Central Division’s big boys.

Tonight, the Pacific Division’s heavies take center stage. And the Anaheim Ducks vs. San Jose Sharks fight promises to be much better.

This one has playoff-like anticipation around it. Each team has 97 points, so the winner will take over sole possession of first place in the division. And both are desperate to win it.

The old adage of just making the playoffs doesn’t apply to them. Second place in the Pacific means a dance with the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the post-season. First place will draw one of Minnesota, Phoenix or Dallas (possibly Winnipeg or Vancouver). No poison to pick among any of those teams.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, poses a post-season brick wall that neither Anaheim nor San Jose wants to run into in the first round.

Anaheim would likely have a little less trepidation facing the Kings, since the Ducks are 3-0-1 this season against them, while the Sharks are just 1-2-1 and were eliminated by Los Angeles in the second round of the playoffs last season. (Anaheim and San Jose each has one more game remaining against Los Angeles.) But there’s little doubt the Ducks would prefer a softer opponent in Round 1.

This is what the regular season is for. Teams shouldn’t be content with just getting into the post-season. They should be jockeying hard for position.

It’s another benefit of the NHL’s new/old playoff format. With the first two rounds taking place within divisions (crossovers notwithstanding), teams have a pretty good idea of who they’d face in the second round, whereas previously it could have been any number of teams, depending on how reseeding worked out after the first round.

It puts a premium on positioning in the regular season and gives it greater intensity, which is what we’re seeing with Anaheim and San Jose down the stretch. Teams will talk tough, saying they don’t care who they face in the first round, as long as they make the playoffs. But don’t believe it. Players read the papers and they look at the standings.

Through three games against each other, San Jose (2-0-1) has the edge over Anaheim (1-1-1), but the two haven’t faced off since back-to-back games at the end of 2013, so they should be champing at the bit to get at one another. This one promises to be the best so far. With a 10:30 EST start, it’s a late one for those in the east, but it’ll be well worth staying up for.

Let the game begin.

Ronnie Shuker is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blogFollow him on Twitter at @THNRonnieShuker.

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