SAN JOSE, Calif. - The last time the San Jose Sharks returned from a break, they endured one of their worst stretches in years with eight losses in 10 games.
Another dismal run like that as the Sharks return from four days off from the all-star break could just about end any hopes San Jose has of making the playoffs.
"We have to learn from our last one," coach Todd McLellan said Monday. "Obviously the Christmas break didn't do anything for us. We took the 48 hours off and then came back and decided we needed a few extra days. It got us into trouble. We have to learn from that. ... We don't have any time to find our way. We have to be producing off the bat."
McLellan tweaked things a little bit at practice Monday from what he did when the team came back from Christmas, spending extra time talking, looking at video and working on the mental part of the game.
This is an unfamiliar position for this time of the season. After posting the second best regular-season record in the NHL over the previous five seasons, San Jose finds itself in a three-way tie for seventh place in the Western Conference after an up-and-down first 50 games this season.
With only the top eight teams qualifying for the playoffs, the Sharks need to worry about just making the post-season instead of things like playoff positioning and staying fresh.
"In the past we've been comfortably in first or at least comfortably in the playoffs and we were worrying about different things at that point, the fatigue factor in the team, the injuries, the placing, whether you have home ice or not. That's not the case right now. We can't worry about any of that. It's about competing for 32 games. Whatever position we're in when it's all over and whatever fatigue factor we'll have, we'll have to deal with that."
The Sharks begin their stretch drive with a home game Tuesday against the Phoenix Coyotes, who are three points ahead of the Sharks in sixth place in the conference. Then San Jose plays another team its chasing on the road Wednesday with a visit to Anaheim that starts a stretch of seven road games in 14 days while the SAP Open tennis tournament takes over HP Pavilion.
"This is our push here," defenceman Dan Boyle said. "It starts a little earlier this year, 30-some games left. They're all going to be important from here on out. This is a very long road trip. It can kill you or it can make you. We'll be together quite a bit off the ice so hopefully we can come together as a team off the ice and on the ice and put a good string of wins together."
After making it all the way to the Western Conference final a year ago before being swept by eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago, the Sharks were looking to go at least one step further this year and play in the Stanley Cup for the first time in team history.
Instead they've endured an inconsistent season that started in Sweden and has featured only a few stretches reminiscent of past years. San Jose appeared to have turned the corner by winning four straight games heading into the Christmas break.
San Jose is 16 points behind their pace from a year ago and have their worst record entering February since 2006, the last time they had to fight for a playoff spot late in a season.
The Sharks' scoring is down from 3.13 goals per game to 2.72—their second-lowest total since Joe Thornton arrived in the 2005-06 season. The defence has slipped with the retirement of captain Rob Blake and the departure of goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and the Sharks have had a tough time holding onto leads, losing six games that they led after two periods—the third-worst record in the league.
While rookie Logan Couture has provided a boost with a team-leading 22 goals and Ryane Clowe has played well with 38 points, the gold medal trio of Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley haven't had nearly the success they had a year ago.
The three have combined for a -34 rating—with Marleau tied for the fifth worst mark in the league at -19—and their goal scoring has dropped more than 25 per cent per game and their points have fallen by more than 20 per cent.
But the Sharks lost their first two games back, won two in a row after that before losing six straight in their longest stretch without earning a point since 1995-96.
San Jose won four straight after that before losing its final game before the break in a shootout at Los Angeles.
"We started our playoffs five or six games ago," Thornton said. "Every game is so important to us. Every game is like a Game 7 to us because points mean so much. We feel like we have to win every game now."