The San Jose Sharks entered their 10-day break playing some poor hockey. They’d coughed up six goals apiece in four consecutive games. Truth be told, this was a tired team and it showed. To that point, they were among the league leaders in games played, road games played and miles traveled. They needed the break.
The Sharks’ Games
Some teams exit the break and take a game or two to find their game. The Sharks’ first game following the break, on home ice, was an overtime win over the Arizona Coyotes. It was the game and result the team needed. February shapes up as a challenging month with a pair of four-game road trips. Locking down a home win against one of the weaker teams the Sharks face this month was a helpful start.
The next two games took the Sharks to Canada and against the two best records in the Western Conference. In a tight, evenly played game, the Sharks managed an overtime win against the Winnipeg Jets, one of the toughest places to pull off a road win.
Two nights later, the Sharks went to Calgary and posted another win, this time without needing overtime. The Calgary Flames outplayed the Sharks, but a bit of luck and a few questionable plays by the Flames helped offset the seven minor penalties the Sharks took (they killed off six of the seven).
On the third game of the road trip, the Sharks easily polished off the struggling Edmonton Oilers. Only the Vancouver Canucks stand between San Jose and a 5-0 run after the All-Star break, along with a 4-0 road trip. As critically, the Sharks goalies may have finally found their games. Martin Jones gave up just two goals in each of the first three games after the break. Backup Aaron Dell gave up two goals in his win over the Oilers. The Sharks are unbeaten, 23-0, in games they’ve allowed two goals or fewer.
The Pacific Division and Western Conference Best
The Sharks are pressuring Calgary for first place in the Pacific Division and first overall in the Western Conference. The Sharks’ 5-2 win on Sunday over the Oilers moved the Sharks past the Jets into second place in the Western Conference and within one point of the first-place Flames.
There are five teams which have effectively run away from the pack in the West and locked up a playoff spot: the Sharks, Flames, Jets, Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights. Not only has San Jose shown it can beat the top teams in the West, they’ve shown they can beat them on the road. They’ve now posted road wins against each of the other top teams in the Western Conference.
To make matters more impressive, the Sharks’ first-half most valuable player, Erik Karlsson, has been out since before the break. When he returns, the team adds close to 25 minutes a night of elite defensive play. This will make the Sharks even tougher.
The Wrong Messages
The Sharks are sending a message, and some might think it’s going to other good teams, but it isn’t. No team needs a message letting them know San Jose is a good team – a real threat to go a very long way this season. The Sharks have an extremely talented group. While a few players have disappointed, the team has played well together, and the depth has been surprisingly good. Sending a message to the rest of the league isn’t important.
Many look at the standings and see the Sharks in a position to take the lead in both the division and conference. Another incorrect message relates to the playoff seeding chase. History says this chase is a fool’s errand (though some disagree).
Winning the Pacific Conference
Over the past 10 seasons, the winner of the Pacific Division has a 14-10 record in playoff series. It is good, but it is not the best record based on standing. Teams which finished second in the Pacific, where the Sharks sit, have a poor playoff record. For the past 10 seasons, an overall playoff series record of 4-10.
The best record actually belongs to the teams that have finished third in the division. Over the last 10 playoffs seasons, the third-place team in the Pacific has a stellar 16-8 record in playoff series. Both Stanley Cup winners came out of the three spot.
Does this mean the Sharks should aim lower, not higher? Not really. The data shows it doesn’t really matter where a team finishes the regular season, since playoff success does not correlate to the regular season standings.
The Correct Messages
The Sharks are learning they can play with anyone in the league. Certainly anyone in the Western Conference. There is a lot of season left, and this team needs to figure out how to manage itself for the playoffs.
The correct message is being sent to the team itself. This team can compete and they can believe in themselves. Confident without being cocky can go a long way and the Sharks are right there. Message received? One hopes so.
There is a lot to like in Sharks’ Territory, and the first four games after the break have sent a message. Perhaps the league is paying attention, but that hardly matters. Perhaps there is optimism about winning the division, but that also doesn’t matter.
What matters is the team believes. And oh yes, there is one more message matters; it is to the fans. The bandwagon has plenty of room, and it’s time to get on board.
Joe Thornton continues to hit milestones. In my eyes, he reached his most meaningful milestone in the win over Edmonton with career assist 1,049. This ties him for ninth all-time with perhaps the most revered figured in NHL history, Gordie Howe.