In the season’s first 18 games, the San Jose Sharks went a very modest 9-8-1, putting them in the middle of the Pacific Division. For a team favored to win the division, this was not a great start, especially with the continuity advantage this team had over pretty much every other NHL team.
The most recent dozen games saw the Sharks go 9-3-0. They are now leading the Pacific with a 18-11-1 record, though it is only the ninth best record in the league. It seemed the Sharks were finally creating separation in the standings, at least from the fringe playoff spots. However, other teams managed to keep close to San Jose. Anaheim was two points ahead after Game 18, they are now even in points with the Sharks. Calgary, once buried at 5-10-1, has gone on an 11-4-1 run to stay within striking range.
Edmonton, the early season darlings, have fallen on tougher times. A 7-1-0 start has given way to an 8-11-5 run since. Still, Edmonton remains very much in the midst of the Pacific Division race. The Los Angeles Kings also remain in the hunt, at 15-12-2, going 8-3-1 in their last dozen games.
While the Sharks sit atop the division, there are four other Pacific teams in close proximity.
A Critical Stretch
For San Jose, the next dozen games may prove pivotal.
Two challenging road games await. A Friday game in Montreal is against the Atlantic Division leader. It is followed by a Sunday tilt against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Central Division leader. The Sharks played both teams on home ice early in the season, winning each game by a 2-1 score.
After those challenging games, the Sharks will find themselves playing seven of the next 10 against the rivals already mentioned. Two games apiece against Los Angeles, Calgary and Edmonton, with one game against Anaheim. Rounding out the daunting dozen are games against Detroit, Philadelphia and Minnesota. The Red Wings handed San Jose one of their worst losses of the season, while both Minnesota and Philadelphia have better records than the Sharks.
This stretch of a dozen games will take San Jose through Game 42, one game past the season’s midpoint. With seven of 12 games against their closest rivals in the standings, it is an opportunity to create significant separation in the division. Of the five games outside the division, four are against teams with better records.
Notable Health Issues
Can the Sharks make the most of the opportunity? They enter this stretch with some notable health issues. Marc-Edouard Vlasic missed one game, though he returned in the most recent game against Ottawa. He may not be fully healthy. Tomas Hertl remains out of the lineup. Logan Couture took a dirty hit, a cross-check to the back of the head, from the Senators’ Mike Hoffman. He missed the rest of the game, most likely with a concussion.
San Jose can weather injuries, but it will not be easy. Players inserted into the lineup, like Micheal Haley and Matt Nieto, are not comparable to players like Couture and Hertl. The Sharks will also count on contributions from younger players like Kevin Labanc (17 NHL games) and the newest Shark, Timo Meier. Meier, a ninth overall draft pick, is expected to make his NHL debut against the Canadiens.
Adding to the intrigue will be the play of Martin Jones and his backup, Aaron Dell. Dell has been effective, but he is among the league’s least used backups. Jones is having a strong season and is second in the league in games played. This includes starting both ends of back-to-back games twice in the last couple weeks.
This portion of the season is a perfect time for the team to put together a strong stretch. They can create some breathing room in the standings while pushing key rivals down. The flip side is also in play. This is a chance for key rivals to put the Sharks right back where they were a dozen or so games ago, at the fringe of the playoffs.
The Sharks’ recent comeback win against Toronto was a rare event. San Jose trailed by two goals with under 10 minutes to play and came back to win the game, 3-2. At one point, I tracked 150 Sharks games to look at the chances of coming back from down two goals with 10 minutes left in regulation. Out of the 150 games, 34 were two-goal games with 10 minutes to go (23 percent). The record of the trailing team in those 34 games was 0-32-2.