Not even Jonathan Quick giving Sharks fans nightmarish flashbacks could prevent Team Teal from beating the Los Angeles Kings in order to, at long last, clinch a playoff spot on Monday night.
It had been quite an arduous delay; the Sharks could have locked up the third slot in the Pacific Division as early as last Tuesday, but they proceeded to lose three straight home games before finally defeating the Kings in an epic clash of division rivals; Quick’s spectacular stick save to deny Logan Couture at the end of the second period to keep the game tied notwithstanding.
With a ticket to the postseason punched, the Sharks can look ahead to many possibilities — resting players the final six games, trying to catch Anaheim for home ice advantage in the first round, mentally preparing themselves to make this postseason different from typical Sharks playoff hockey.
After all, what good does a playoff berth do if the Sharks are eliminated once again in the early rounds? It is a very real possibility that the Ducks, whom the Sharks lost three out of four games to this season, could send San Jose packing. So could the Kings, who have painfully ended the Sharks’ last two postseason runs. True, the Sharks finished the season series 3-1-1 against the Kings, but as has been well-chronicled regular season success does not necessarily translate to a strong playoffs for San Jose.
Entering the Playoffs With a Head Full of Steam
Though the Sharks know they will be facing one of their SoCal rivals in the first round, their approach to the final six regular season games will be interesting. Obviously, head coach Peter DeBoer would like his team to head into the playoffs hitting full stride on a hot streak. Losing three straight home games in late March is not ideal, but four of their last six games are against non-playoff teams, including the final two against Winnipeg and Arizona.
Winning those last two games and giving the team a boost of confidence is crucial toward a strong start in the first round, as is priming goaltender Martin Jones for the playoffs. Hot goaltenders can single-handedly swing a series — the Sharks learned that the hard way several times against Quick — and Jones has shown throughout the season that he is capable of putting together a strong stretch of starts.
Should the Sharks Play it Safe?
But this is where a quandary emerges. The Sharks have several players banged up, ranging from top defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic (lower body) to impressive rookie Joonas Donskoi (lower body). Forward Matt Nieto has a hand injury and defenseman Matt Tennyson has a concussion. Though no injury is significant and they will all probably be ready to go for the playoffs, the Sharks are currently down one of the best defensemen in the league, their top rookie, a speedy forward and depth on the blue line.
The last thing they need is another injury to a key player in a meaningless game, which is where DeBoer has to walk the tightrope between competing hard, pushing Anaheim for the second spot and getting into a good rhythm heading into the playoffs and giving certain players more rest so that they are as close to 100 percent as possible for the playoffs. Same with the goaltending: DeBoer can lean on the backup James Reimer more to finish off the season, but also has to keep the blood flowing in Jones.
Making the playoffs is nothing special for the Sharks, but succeeding in them has been an evasive accomplishment. How they approach the road to the Stanley Cup will have implications when the puck drops in round one.