Paul Martin, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns
The Sharks have been the league’s best team over the past two months, and they’re in a perfect position to head back to the Western Conference final this season.
The Blackhawks’ victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday evening vaulted Chicago into first place in the Central Division and subsequently into first place in the entire Western Conference. The one point lead the Blackhawks have on the division rival Minnesota Wild, who happen to have a game in hand on Chicago, sets up for what’s certain to be a furious finish for top spot in both the division and conference.
But as all eyes focus on the Blackhawks and Wild, two of the premier contenders in the West, the San Jose Sharks have methodically gone about their business, steadily climbing the standings and putting themselves in a position where there’s a very real possibility two things happen. First, that for the second season in a row, the Sharks are the representative of the Pacific Division in the conference final. Second, it stands to reason that San Jose, not the West-favorite Minnesota or Chicago, could have home ice advantage in the West final with the way the Sharks have racked up points over the past two months.
San Jose’s consistent rise up the standings began almost exactly two months ago. At the time of the Sharks’ Jan. 14 loss to the St. Louis Blues, they sat fifth in the Western Conference and third in their own division, chasing both the Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers while only narrowly holding off the Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings. The following night, however, the Sharks kicked off a six-game winning streak, eking out four one-goal victories in the process. The streak was enough to leap the Ducks and Oilers in the standings, putting the San Jose first in the Pacific and third in the conference.
Of note about that win streak, though, is that it was the longest the Sharks have had this season. Once it ended, the Sharks won just two of their next seven games and have since won two or three games before having their brief streak halted. That’s much the same way San Jose’s season has gone from jump, and it’s likely that same inability to piece together long dominant runs that has had San Jose flying somewhat under the radar. But these Sharks shouldn’t be flying under the radar at all, because with the post-season inching nearer, they’re not just the hottest team in the Western Conference. Rather, they’re the hottest team in the entire league.
Since Jan. 15, San Jose has posted a stunning 17-4-5 record, good for 39 points. The next best team over that span, fittingly, is the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the same team who defeated the Sharks in six games during the 2015-16 final. Over that two-month span, the Sharks have had the seventh-most prolific offense in the league with 82 goals for. Martin Jones and Aaron Dell, along with the San Jose defense, have surrendered a mere 58 goals since Jan. 15. That’s the second best total in the league. And the Sharks’ plus-24 goal differential is third-best in the NHL since mid-January.
There’s more to the Sharks over this span than the pure goals for and goals against, though. Underlying numbers point to a team that’s once again ready to make some noise when it matters most. In terms of pure puck possession numbers, the Sharks’ Corsi for of 51.2 percent ranks ninth over the past two months, and San Jose is eighth with a 51.8 percent shots for percentage. In terms of scoring chances for, the Sharks rank eighth in the league since Jan. 15 at 51.3 percent and they have the same expected goals for percentage, putting them ninth in the league. This all points to a Sharks team that’s heating up at the right time as the post-season approaches, but more than numbers are working in San Jose’s favor with the playoffs roughly four weeks away.
While the Blackhawks and Wild battle it out for top seed in the Central, they also prepare to potentially face each other in the second round. That means there’s a guarantee that one of the two perceived top contenders in the Western Conference will be out of the running and a possibility that both could be sent packing before the conference final comes about. And while it’s true, too, that the Sharks could suffer the same fate, the path to the division title won’t have to run through a team quite as strong as either Chicago or Minnesota. That’s to take nothing away from the Flames, Ducks or Oilers, but the Sharks stand to have home ice advantage through the first two rounds and the ability to rely on past experience. Say what you will for the impact experience has, but San Jose’s run to the Stanley Cup final was a valuable lesson. It’s the type of thing a team can build on.
One can’t overlook the star factor, either. Brent Burns is having a Norris Trophy-worthy campaign that has to have him in the Hart Trophy conversation, as well, and there’s always the solid, underrated play of Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Meanwhile, Joe Pavelski is on pace for another quiet 30-goal season, Logan Couture is set to post 60 points for the third time in his career, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau continue to provide veteran leadership and production and even Mikkel Boedker, who struggled mightily in his first few months as a Shark, has started to come on. He has seven goals and 14 points in his past 30 games. Star power and consistent production can make all the difference in the post-season, and the Sharks have and are getting both.
The battle for the Central has taken center stage over the past few weeks, but there’s no reason to sleep on the Sharks any longer. San Jose’s in the perfect position to repeat as the Pacific’s representative in the Western Conference final. And if the Sharks can get that far once again, don’t be surprised if we’re seeing San Jose taking a run at the Stanley Cup for the second-straight season.
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