It's been a long road to get here, and it's been a bumpy road at times. But tonight, in a game that the Sharks almost had to have, they turned in one of their most complete games of the season, effectively burying Dallas in the process.
Now, with two games left in the season, the Sharks need just two points out of four to get a playoff berth. According to sportsclubstats.com, the Sharks' playoff chances jumped 30.4% to put them at 92% to make the dance.
The outcome is not belied by the score (look at that vocabulary, worst on the site my ass), the 5-2 win was as impressive as the score would indicate. Getting on the board first yet again, San Jose would get a huge goal from Daniel Winnik, who continues to add offense to his already sound defensive game. Winnik took a shot which bounced off Kari Lehtonen and put it back off the Stars' netminder and into the net. That one goal lead would not last long, however, as Brendan Morrow would score an equalizer five minutes later. The Stars' captain took a nonchalant backhand shot from the side of the net, and the puck inexplicably bounced off Niemi's stick and through his pads.
Along the way, the Sharks would kill a 5 on 3 power play for Dallas and the score would stay even until the second, when the Stars would cycle the puck aggressively throughout the zone and take advantage of a discombobulated in-zone effort by the Sharks. I'm not above criticizing the team when they make their mistakes, and that was one tonight. With Benn coming into the zone, multiple Sharks took themselves out of the play and either fell or over-committed to their assignment. Jamie Benn would eventually work the puck up through the carnage to Alex Goligoski, who pumped a puck past Niemi to put the Stars up to a then daunting 2-1 lead.
You may be saying to yourself: "Matt, we all know you're the worst writer on the site, but now you're also delusional. This sounds like a terrible game for San Jose." Granted, the Sharks hadn't played their best game up to that point, but like myself, they rose like a phoenix from the ashes and accepted the challenge presented to them.
There were two pivotal moments for San Jose in the game, and the first came off the stick of T.J. Galiardi. After Dominic Moore took the puck behind the net, Galiardi received the pass and made a series of beautiful moves: first, he toe-dragged the puck to the perfect shooting position. Second, he put the puck in one of the tightest spots I've ever seen, getting just enough net to secure the 2-2 tie with his first goal as a Shark.
With time winding down in the second, Joe Thornton would use a quick burst of speed to try to grab a loose puck, and was tripped in the process. It wasn't the surest of calls, and I'd understand if Dallas fans were a little peeved at the penalty, but these things happen to all teams and even out. Unfortunately for Dallas, this soft one came at a time when they couldn't afford it.
San Jose would have a four-minute power play in the third, a penalty which Joe Thornton drew off a high-stick behind the Dallas net. The Sharks wouldn't convert, and at that moment, I'd understand if Sharks fans started to have a little doubt come into their mind.
Cue the next pivotal moment for the Sharks, as Antti Niemi might have made one of the most important plays in the history of the team. Some good passing along with a few defensive breakdowns led to a Jamie Benn breakaway with a chance to tie the game. It was the worst possible situation for San Jose; this wasn't Jake Dowell walking in alone. One of the most dangerous offensive players in the league had a chance to save his team's season against a goaltender who has been nothing short of maligned this year.
But Niemi sprawled out and made a beautiful pad save to keep the Sharks in the lead. It wasn't as flashy as Nabokov's glove save against the same Dallas team in the playoffs a few years ago, but the outcome was better. Feeding off the energy, the Sharks wouldn't look back.
Joe Thornton, who Plank has gone on record saying that he has one of the worst shots in the league (I'd agree, most nights) ripped a nasty wrist shot that beat Lehtonen over the shoulder. That effectively drove the axe into Dallas.
With the Stars goalie pulled, Ryane Clowe scored an empty netter, and that was all she wrote. The Sharks overcame what was a potentially disastrous situation to triumph over the rival Stars and all but secure a playoff berth.
Making the playoffs shouldn't be enough for this team, though. They'd much rather win the Pacific, and they have the chance to do just that with two games remaining against the current division leaders, the Los Angeles Kings. If the Sharks win both, they have a great chance to take yet another Pacific Division crown. Phoenix can still win the division if they win out (they're beating Columbus 2-0 at the time of this writing), but the Sharks have to focus on their next two games and let the cards fall where they may.
It should be an exciting two game series to say the least.