While the Sharks have clinched a playoff spot, the identity of their first-round opponent remains very much up in the air. Based on how the final two nights of the NHL's regular season shake out, San Jose could be facing the Ducks, Kings, Blues or Canucks when the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin early next week. Here's a look at what needs to happen in order for the Sharks to face each of those four teams, the pros and cons of playing each opponent and an extremely scientific matchup favorability rating ranging from one Chris Pronger head (good matchup) to four (bad matchup) in honor of the man who skated for three different teams that eliminated the Sharks from playoffs past.
Probability of this series being a thing: 16%
Why you should hope this series is a thing: More than any non-Southeast division winner in recent memory, the Ducks are a paper tiger. Only a handful of Western Conference teams have been worse at even-strength puck possession this season, a metric that tends to be a pretty strong predictor of playoff success. Anaheim lived off sky-high shooting and save percentages early in the year that have largely regressed over the past month; the Ducks are just 8-8-2 in their last 18 games, an 82-point pace over a full regular season. The opportunity for vengeance after 2009 is both enticing and realistically attainable.
Why you should hope this series isn't a thing: No matter how bad they've been over the past few years, the Ducks have always seemed to have the Sharks' number with Jonas Hiller in particular consistently finding his way into the heads of San Jose's shooters. Anaheim also boasts a legitimately dangerous power play and the Ryan Getzlaf line always presents a matchup problem for the Sharks, although Logan Couture was able to neutralize him in these teams' last two meetings.
Los Angeles Kings
Probability of this series being a thing: 4%
What needs to happen for this series to be a thing: San Jose has to beat the Kings in overtime or a shootout while St. Louis loses to the Blackhawks.
Why you should hope this series is a thing: For whatever reason, the Sharks have been able to light Jonathan Quick up with relative ease throughout his career and the rest of the conference joined in on the fun this season. While the Kings are still a frightening possession team, they've fallen off their previously historic pace a bit since taking on some dead weight; the organization decided to tie a boat anchor named Robyn Regehr around Drew Doughty's legs at the trade deadline and recently reintegrated injured pylon Matt Greene into the lineup, who can probably best be described as Los Angeles' Douglas Murray. At least on paper, the Sharks would also appear to have an edge in forward depth.
Why you should hope this series isn't a thing: While it's certainly true that they could be a better team if Willie Mitchell were healthy and Lombardi had managed his roster a bit better during the season, it's foolish to overlook what the Kings still are regardless of lineup changes: one of the best teams in hockey. The defending champs are still the best possession team in the NHL, run two dangerous scoring lines that are awfully difficult to match up against and are an exceptional defensive team that simply doesn't allow much in terms of scoring chances. Along with Chicago, they're in a class above everyone else this season.
St. Louis Blues
Probability of this series being a thing: 34%
What needs to happen for this series to be a thing: San Jose has to beat the Kings in regulation.
Why you should hope this series is a thing: At least Quick has an established track record of being an average to above-average NHL starter. Brian Elliott, who the Blues will likely be leaning on with Jaroslav Halak just recently activated and presumably still recovering from a groin injury, has a fluky half-season of dominance and three and a half years of horrendous play filling out his resume. This Sharks team, featuring a more mobile defense, also stands a better chance of countering St. Louis' forecheck than they did a year ago and are extremely unlikely to be as abysmal on the penalty kill as they were against the Blues during the 2012 playoffs. It also goes without saying that a chance at revenge would be welcomed.
Why you should hope this series isn't a thing: Despite their goaltending-fueled struggles earlier this season, the Blues are built very similarly to the Kings; they're a dominant possession team with a smothering defense that's primed for playoff success. Their top pairing of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo looks as terrifying on paper as any in the NHL and their special teams are phenomenal. Perhaps above all else, let's face it, games between the Sharks and Blues are pretty damn boring.
Probability of this series being a thing: 46%
What needs to happen for this series to be a thing: San Jose has to either lose to the Kings in overtime or a shootout OR lose to the Kings in regulation while Minnesota gets no more than three points from their final two games.
Why you should hope this series is a thing: Vancouver isn't quite as strong a possession team as the Sharks, their even-strength offense isn't as formidable as years past, their defense is banged up, their power play is a shell of its former Ehrhoff-wielding self and surely that Rogers Arena stanchion can't fuck the Sharks over again, can it?
Why you should hope this series isn't a thing: Mike Gillis didn't trade Roberto Luongo for Tyler Bozak after all so even if Cory Schneider isn't ready to go for Game 1, the Canucks would be able to trot out the best goaltender of the past decade, last seen in postseason action against the Sharks stopping 54 of 56 shots in an elimination game. With Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Derek Roy and Maxim Lapierre potentially down the middle, Vancouver is also one of the few teams in the West that can match San Jose center for center.