San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi deflects a shot from the Dallas Stars during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, March 31, 2012, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
SAN JOSE, Calif. - The San Jose Sharks left town Monday for their final road trip of the regular season barely hanging on to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
When they return home after games in Dallas on Tuesday and Los Angeles on Thursday, they could have a playoff spot locked up and the inside track on the Pacific Division title or be eliminated from post-season contention even before the season finale against the Kings.
That's how tightly packed things are in the topsy-turvy Pacific Division that entered Monday with four teams separated by two points. At least one team among Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Dallas will be left out of the game of playoff musical chairs at week's end, with Colorado holding an outside chance of knocking off a second team.
"It is a playoff atmosphere. It's exciting," defenceman Dan Boyle said. "I've never been in a position down to the wire like this. Thirteen years now and this is a first."
The Sharks (90 points) are in eighth place in the Western Conference, one point behind division-leading Los Angeles and Phoenix heading into Monday's action and a point ahead of the Stars. Each team has three games remaining, with the Kings playing at home against Edmonton on Monday. Colorado is a point behind the Stars, but has only two games left, so the Pacific teams have the inside track on the last three playoff spots in the conference.
The winner will be seeded third and have home-ice advantage in the opening round, while the other two teams will be slotted seventh and eighth.
This is most unusual territory for the Sharks, who usually are spending the final week of the season fighting for seeding or looking at possible first-round matchups. San Jose was the second-best regular season team in the first six seasons after the lockout, trailing only Detroit in the standings, and made the Western Conference final the past two seasons.
Now instead of ending a season with another playoff disappointment, the Sharks are in danger or missing the post-season entirely for the first time since the 2002-03 season.
"It's a little different," forward Ryane Clowe said. "It's kind of nice. Sometimes you get down to this stage and you're counting games and kind of watching who you'll play in the playoffs. Coaches get worried because sometimes you have little slides this time of year. It's kind of nice. For us, where we finished the past couple years, we had a good run but haven't won the Cup. That's what we want to do. Where we finished doesn't matter. It's probably a good thing if we get in and are playing hot down the stretch."
The Sharks will likely need four points in the final three games to feel secure about making the playoffs. With two of those games away from home, San Jose will need to solve its recent road woes to get it done.
The Sharks have lost 17 of their past 21 road games, including eight of the past nine. They have scored just 16 goals in those nine games as lack of offence has been a constant theme throughout the road struggles.
"It's hard to pinpoint one thing," captain Joe Thornton said. "We've been getting a lot of shots. Just maybe getting in the goalie's eyes perhaps. But hopefully on this road trip we'll throw some into the net. ... We'd like to see our good road play start right now because we need it."
San Jose hasn't even held a lead in its past three road games, going 218 minutes, 34 seconds since its last road lead in Calgary on March 13. The Sharks have been outscored 10-3 in their last three road games, losing to Los Angeles, Anaheim and Phoenix.
"When you score early on a team or get the lead early, it kind of sets up the game a little different," Clowe said. "When you're getting chances and you're not scoring, it's in the back of your head that you have to score. If we can find a way to score and get a lead that would be a good start."
Scoring goals has been a problem of late for the Sharks, who are searching for offence from two of their most dependable players. Logan Couture has gone 10 games without a goal—matching the longest drought of his career—while Patrick Marleau has just two goals in the past 19 games.
Coach Todd McLellan said the key to road success goes beyond those big scorers and will be to get all four lines playing well instead of the two or three the team has had in recent road games.
"When we can get 12 forwards rolling and have that effectiveness and momentum from one line to the next, that makes us dangerous," he said. "You can't get it done at this time of year (without that). You need everyone involved."
The Sharks hope to get burly defenceman Douglas Murray back for the game against the Stars. Murray has missed the past two games with a lower-body injury but practiced with the team before the flight to Dallas on Monday. McLellan said it would be up to the training staff whether Murray will play.
"As long as you can get around you can always think you can help the team," he said. "'It's a matter of not making things worse, too."