The release of the NHL's regular season schedule is always one of the few joyous midsummer events on the hockey fan's calendar, made particularly notable this year by the league's concurrent announcement that its players will participate in the Sochi Olympics (be sure to set your alarm clocks to 4AM on February 23rd to watch Joe Pavelski win gold!), the probability that most of these games will actually be played unlike last year's schedule and the long-awaited unveiling of the NHL's new division names. So what did a league that prides itself on creativity go with for the seven-team division that includes the Sharks, Kings, Ducks, Coyotes, Canucks, Flames and Oilers? Did they honor tradition and choose to name it the Smythe Division? How about the humorous but geographically accurate (sorry, Coyotes) Canafornia Division? As it turns out, your 2013-14 San Jose Sharks will ply their trade in...
...the Pacific Division. Yup, it's the same name as last year. And the year before. And every season prior to that dating back to 1993. On the bright side, at least these banners won't be obsolete. Anyway, the Sharks open their season on October 3rd and end on April 12th with a 20-day Olympic break in between. They play the fewest back-to-backs in the NHL with ten and are on national television five times in the United States and four times in Canada. Here are, in our opinion, the ten best games on the Sharks' 2013-14 regular season schedule:
Vs. Vancouver Canucks, October 3rd
Including last season's playoffs, the Sharks haven't lost to the Canucks in seven straight games so what better way to kick off the campaign than by hosting the team they swept out of the postseason? Assuming he doesn't bolt for the KHL, Roberto Luongo will be in net for Game 1 of Vancouver's post-goalie controversy era. Speaking of which, let's take a moment to remember the conclusion of Cory Schneider's final game in a Canucks sweater.
This division rivalry is going to rule.
At Dallas Stars, October 17th
We mused last season that the departure of Steve Ott and Mike Ribeiro from Texas meant the once-legendary Sharks/Stars rivalry was dead. But then Jamie Benn and Joe Thornton dropped the gloves and the Sharks played a hand in Dallas' elimination from playoff contention for the second straight season so maybe these teams still do hate each other, even after the Stars' move out of the Pacific Division. We'll find out for sure when San Jose faces a new-look Dallas team featuring Tyler Seguin (and his entourage of nefarious Twitter-hackers), Shawn Horcoff and Sergei Gonchar. Also you just know Valeri Nichushkin will score his first NHL goal in this game.
At Los Angeles Kings, October 30th
Revenge is a dish best served cold. And also best served in the playoffs so regardless of the outcome in this game, the Sharks won't really have a chance to avenge this year's Game 7 loss to the Kings until the teams inevitably meet in the Pacific Division Final next spring. That doesn't mean this won't still prove to be a big one as Raffi Torres faces Los Angeles for the first time since his suspension and the two best teams in the Pacific collide.
At Chicago Blackhawks, November 17th
For the first time since Dave Bolland crushed the hopes of the Bruins faithful (and was promptly rewarded for his efforts by being shipped to Toronto), the Sharks will face off against Michal Handzus and the defending Stanley Cup champions. Chicago has somewhat had the Sharks' number in recent years, mostly because they've had almost every team's number since they're really good at hockey. San Jose will try to change that in one of the early season's many measuring stick games.
Vs. Anaheim Ducks, November 30th
So the Ducks were something of a house of cards last season that eventually crumbled against Detroit in round one of the playoffs but they still, as they always seem to do, played the Sharks competitively, at least until The Tommy Wingels Show in that 4-0 blowout loss. Expect more of the same this season, although the stakes could be higher in this one as I wouldn't be surprised to see the Team Canada brass pay the Tank a visit with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau all Olympic Team contenders.
Vs. New York Islanders, December 10th
It may not be as anticipated as Owen Nolan's first game back in the Bay Area or Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo's joint return to the Tank after the Dany Heatley trade or Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi's joint return after the other Dany Heatley trade but, for the first time ever, Evgeni Nabokov will play a game against the San Jose Sharks. Maybe. I don't know. It's entirely possible he's already flamed out by this point as he's pretty clearly the weakest link on a resurgent Islanders team. But even if that's the case, this game will still be appointment viewing because John Tavares is awesome and Lubomir Visnovsky is still a treat to watch.
Vs. Winnipeg Jets, January 23rd
Weird pick, I know. But for the first time since 1996, an NHL team from Winnipeg will play in San Jose as the Jets land in the Bay Area for a Thursday night matchup with some added intrigue courtesy former Shark Devin Setoguchi and former Shark-killer Dustin Byfuglien. Besides, any time the Jets and Sharks meet, you can count on some serious shit going down.
Vs. Pittsburgh Penguins, March 6th
Sidney Crosby hasn't played a game at the Tank since Pavelski out-Crosby'd him on November 7th, 2009. A week and change after Pavelski pulls off a similar feat in Sochi, Crosby will return to San Jose for a potential Stanley Cup preview and the first installment of what are finally going to be annual visits as the NHL realized six years too late that the star players they shove down everyone's throat could be more easily marketed if they actually played a game in every league city.
Vs. Los Angeles Kings, April 3rd
There's no chance this game doesn't have serious seeding implications in the division as these two teams will probably be jostling for first place in the Pacific all year long. The last of their four regular season meetings should set the stage for a likely playoff matchup and feature recently-named Kings assistant GM Rob Blake joining the Sharks' front office sometime in the middle of the second period.
Seattle Arizona Coyotes, April 12th
If recent history is any indication, it's likely the playoff picture won't be settled until the final night of the regular season. Which is actually the night after this one so get ready for some scoreboard-watching. In their season finale, the Sharks travel to Glendale to face a team that, against all odds, actually still exists. I wouldn't be surprised if, against all odds, they're still in the playoff hunt at this point too.