I've always loved the month of March.
Growing up in Russia, this meant three things. First, the winter was over the snow began to melt. Second, the Women's Day was on the 8th of March. Second, soccer was back after the offseason and sports began to matter again.
I still love March, now that I live in the States. First, the hills are still green in the Bay Area. Second, it is still the Women's Day on the 8th of March. Third, the hockey begins to matter more.
As Sharks fans, we've been spoiled this time of the year since the lockout. By this time, we knew the Sharks were making playoffs, if not on paper, then at least 99% sure. Losses ceased to bother us too much, and we were simply waiting for playoffs to start. With the exception of Detroit Red Wings who enjoyed a similar fate, no other team in the NHL has been this relaxed in the second half of March every year since the lockout
Back in December, we thought that this year will be the year the Sharks will have to fight to make the playoffs. The Sharks were on the outside looking in. No one felt safe, and it seemed Doug Wilson was the only person in the league who believed in this group of players and in this coaching staff.
But we all remember what happened next - 21-4-4 record since January 15th. Let that sink in for a moment.
The Sharks lost just four games in regulation in the last 29 games.
However, strong finishes to the regular season is something the Sharks every year since the lockout under Ron Wilson - and they had good if not strong finishes under Todd McLellan.
Here is the breakdown by year of how the final 20 games of the regular season went.
2006: 14-3-3, 99 points
2007: 13-4-3,107 points
2008: 16-2-2, 108 points
2009: 11-2-7, 117 points
2010: 11-2-7, 113 points
The difference this season is that the Sharks earned their present spot recently, rather then at the start of the season. They had to fight hard to rise back to the top, winning most games by just one goal, blocking almost twice as many shots as earlier in the season, and Niemi playing the best hockey of his career.
Another big difference is how everyone in the West else is playing. The playoffs push in the West has not been this close in many years.
Every points matters for the 10 teams still in the playoffs mix and because of that, every game now feels like a playoffs game.
This is exactly what it is for Calgary Flames tonight. Ever since the coaching change, they've played well, but the recent slump (only 4 wins in the last 10) dropped them outside of playoffs once again. They want to make it back in, and no doubt they'll play to the limit of their abilities tonight.
Tonight's game is also the last one in the regular season against non-Pacific division opponent. After that, it's all Pacific teams - every one of them desperate to stay above the 9th spot in the West.
With just 7 points lead over spot no. 9, the Sharks cannot afford to relax either. They're posed to make playoffs - but a strong finish can still guarantee a round or two of home ice advantage - something that should never be taken for granted, especially against any Pacific division opponent, or other hopefuls, like the Flames or the Blackhawks.
And because of that, this year's March is another one I love.
PREDICTION: Great night of hockey.