Fittingly, the Sharks' 82nd game of the year played out as a microcosm of the team's season.
In their final game, San Jose started slowly but benefitted from the strong play of their team MVP, Antti Niemi. After committing to their game, the Sharks piled on with goals from multiple players en-route to a 3-1 victory over a motivated team and potential playoff opponent.
Although we won't know until tomorrow who the Sharks will play in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (Phoenix, Los Angeles, Nashville and Chicago are all possibilities), tonight's strong showing against Phoenix after a less than stellar effort on Friday night is a good stepping stone for a team looking for their first championship.
The crowd was a raucous one tonight, just an indication of what is to come over the next few months. San Jose is a notoriously tough place to play; the size of the building coupled with the voracity of the fan base makes HP Pavilion one of the loudest buildings in the league. Captain Joe Thornton, who addressed the fans after the win, spoke to that reputation... albeit with some sarcastic jabs for motivation.
"We expected more from you guys, and we know you expect more from us," said Thornton, who was all smiles and seemed more than comfortable in the spotlight. "This is the best building in the world, let's show [our opponents] how hard it is to win games here."
San Jose will have plenty of opportunities to do just that; the Sharks locked up the second seed in the Western Conference tonight, ensuring that they'll have home-ice advantage unless they meet Vancouver. The playoffs are expected to start either Wednesday or Thursday of next week.
Before we look ahead to those games, however, tonight's game shouldn't be forgotten. Phoenix themselves had a chance to secure home ice advantage with a win tonight, and as such, came out strong. San Jose didn't look their cleanest throughout the first, but Antti Niemi held them in it long enough for them to get their legs underneath them. In the second, the Sharks had a nine-shot outburst in the span of just a few minutes, eventually leading to Ian White's second goal in the last two games and only his second in a San Jose uniform. From there, the Sharks took the reigns and didn't look back.
Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski also scored for San Jose, Pavelski's goal giving the Sharks seven twenty-goal scores for the first time in the history of the franchise. This stat is evidence of the balanced scoring attack San Jose boasts headed into the post season; all four lines are dangerous and capable of lighting the lamp.
Speaking of lighting the lamp, Couture's goal was his 32nd tally of the year. The goal moves him one ahead of Carolina's Jeff Skinner and likely puts him in the driver's seat for the Calder Trophy. That would be an impressive honor for Couture, but conventional wisdom says he'd give up the trophy for a chance at the cup in a heartbeat.
All in all, the Sharks look to the playoffs with great expectations. Although they're arguably as good as they have been at any point over the last three years, there is considerably less hype surrounding them.
Maybe that's a good thing. Only results will tell.