For the fourth consecutive year, and the sixth time in the last nine NHL seasons, the San Jose Sharks are Pacific Division Champions. The accomplishment gives them the all-time lead in Pacific Division titles since the division's inception in the 1993-1994 season; San Jose passed Dallas for the lead, who also had five previous division crowns to their name.
Not content to simply coast their way to what seemed like an eventual division win, the Sharks sealed title in convincing fashion as they defeated the rival Los Angeles Kings by an impressive score of 6-1.
Earlier in the season, a Pacific Division title couldn't be further out of the picture. After losing six straight games, the Sharks found themselves out of the playoff picture and in danger of disappointing their fans much earlier than was normal. Since that point, the Sharks have gone an astounding 26-4-4, and are guaranteed either the second or third seed in the Western Conference.
If the 26-4-4 streak wasn't enough to prove the Sharks deserving of their fourth straight division title, the last four wins should do plenty to dispel any doubts of Pacific dominance. Including tonight's match, the Sharks defeated each of their division rivals, and soundly at that. Wins against Phoenix (4-1), Dallas (6-0), Anaheim (4-2) and Los Angeles (6-1) saw the Sharks score an average of five goals per night while allowing an average of just one. Not only were these teams division rivals, but also clubs desperate for playoff positioning.
Over that same period, the Sharks are eleven for their last twelve on the penalty kill, a comforting stat for a team which has struggled in that regard for much of the year. The four day break between the Phoenix and Dallas games was highlighted as an opportunity to work on this area of their game, and it appears as if the coaching staff didn't waste the opportunity.
Six different Sharks scored goals tonight; Pavelski, Vlasic, Wellwood, Boyle, Thornton and Setoguchi all lit the lamp in that order for San Jose, who chased the usually stellar Jonathan Quick in the second period. The scoring bonanza is nothing new for this team; the Sharks have scored five or more goals in five of their last nine games. Even more, the scoring is coming from all lines. Six Sharks have twenty or more goals on the season (Pavelski is seventh, with 19), and six players have fifty or more points. Both feats exceed or tie San Jose Sharks franchise records (San Jose has had six twenty-goal scorers in a season as recently as 2008-2009. They did it before in 2001-2002).
Joe Thornton, who assisted on Boyle's goal in the second period, sits just one point away from 1,000 in his fantastic NHL career. Thornton has embraced not only the Sharks' captaincy in his sixth season with the franchise, but also committed himself defensively. He leads the team in takeaways and has been a stable presence on the penalty kill, while also being strong in the face-off circle.
The last trait hasn't been as apparent over the last two games; Thornton hasn't taken a draw since Thursday's game against Phoenix. Coach Todd McLellan has instead given that responsibility to Patrick Marleau, citing Marleau's need for repetitions in the circle due to his importance in that regard on the penalty kill. Even still, it's interesting that Devin Setoguchi took the draws when Marleau was deemed ineligible, as opposed to Thornton.
That's far from the main concern tonight, though. Even though almost everything could be deemed a positive tonight, the fact remains that Ryane Clowe left early in the first period after taking only three shifts. The reason for the injury remains unknown, and that's unlikely to change now that the team approaches the playoffs, a point in the season where injury information goes to die. We do know that Clowe, like Thornton, was excused from practice yesterday with a maintenance day. It's this writers assumption that Clowe gave the injury a go, and after three shifts, decided he wasn't yet fit to play. It will be interesting to see whether or not he dresses for Wednesday's game against Anaheim.
Those stories are concern for tomorrow, though. Tonight, the Sharks handed the Kings their worst defeat of the season while getting strong goaltending, solid defense and a balanced scoring attack.
Confidence in the team couldn't be much higher right now. In fact, it's debatable that confidence has ever been this high at any point in the team's spectacular twenty year history.