The Sharks will play the Stars and Kings three times apiece down the stretch in games that will have huge implications on their playoff chances.
As former Apple CEO Gil Amelio once famously remarked, "Apple is like a ship loaded with treasure. But there's a hole in the ship. And my job is to get everyone to row in the same direction."
With 17 games left in the season, and their slide to bubble playoff team now official, it feels like the Sharks have been following Amelio's advice as of late. They're loaded with roster treasure, rowing in the right direction, working hard to get chances, and continuing to control possession for extended stretches of the game.
But just like Amelio, the Sharks haven't managed to correct the biggest problem they face right now-- the hole in the ship. The one that's filled the hull with loses as standing points swiftly slip out to sea, waves threatening to capsize what up until this season has been a run of 7 straight playoff appearances.
As we've covered quite rigorously in numerous articles lately, San Jose has deserved a better fate than what they've received on a lot of those nights. But fate is a fickle mistress and right now she isn't playing around. It all comes down to standings points, and right now San Jose is decisively struggling in the one area that matters the most.
It's looking like it will take about 93 points to get into the Western Conference playoffs at this point, which means the Sharks have to go a shade over .500 down the stretch to get into the big dance. That is a 9-7-1 record or something of equal point value, which by all means seems obtainable. That 93 point mark can obviously change depending upon a myriad of factors, but as of right now we're considering that the secret sauce to crack into the playoff picture.
For the Sharks though, the mere act of squeaking into the playoffs isn't good enough. This is true in the organizational sense, as the Sharks expect much more out of themselves than a late season push to the 8 seed. It is also true in the "giving yourself the best chance to win a Stanley Cup" sense as well, considering the unforgiving gauntlet of hell that awaits the 7/8 seeds in the West this season.
A 7 or 8 seed places San Jose up against either St. Louis, Detroit, or Vancouver in the first round, and theoretically they'd be matched up against another one of those teams in the second round as well. That's a daunting task for any team, especially when you consider the fact that a 7/8 seed at that juncture means San Jose has continued to play mediocre hockey down the stretch and floundered in a moment when they needed to be at their best.
In every sense of the word avoiding a brutal first round series, another brutal second round series if they make it that far, and claiming home ice for their first round matchup is probably the only realistic way the Sharks manage to make their third straight Western Conference Finals appearance and compete for a Stanley Cup come this spring.
Crazier things have happened of course, but it's pretty clear cut right now-- if San Jose wants to put themselves in the best position to go deep they need to springboard into the Pacific Division's top spot before April 8th.
What's important to realize though, and this is pretty definitive, is that path all comes down to how they play against the rest of the Pacific Division playoff contenders. They'll play the Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, and Phoenix Coyotes three times apiece over the remaing games, setting the stage for what will be the most decisive battles in this long-drawn out war.
Those games are essential for San Jose to not just play well in, but win outright. It is in that area where they control their own destiny, because in one fell swoop they're able to not just acquire two points but keep their opposition from doing the same.
It all begins tomorrow when the Sharks head to Dallas to play the Stars, and continues on Saturday when they play the Coyotes. Following that it's a back to back in Alberta, a pair of games at home against the Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators, and then a division heavy run right down to the final two games of the season where San Jose will play a home and home against Los Angeles.
With the way the Kings have come on as of late you have to figure those final two games just might determine the Pacific Division title, if not which team heads to the playoffs. Which is both exciting and terrifying all at the same time.
We can talk scoring chances, Fenwick%, CORSI%, and all of those advanced statistics until we're blue in the face. They're extremely important at determining how good a team actually is over an extended period of time, help give us context as to what is occurring on the ice, and show that the Sharks are much better than what their record indicates.
But unfortunately there's no award handed out at the end of the year for the best team to barely squeak into the playoffs, nor is there one that is bestowed upon the best team to miss since the NHL lockout. It's all about standings points and converting on opportunities, because over a short run like the one we're about to experience over the next 5 weeks, the paint on the car means a helluva lot more than what's going on under the hood.
It starts tomorrow against Dallas and ends on April 7th against the Los Angeles Kings.
Let the race for the Pacific Division title begin.