Sharks Gameday: The Pacific Division Lead? Still Up For Grabs



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Phoenix is one of those teams many don't take seriously around the NHL, and for the most part, it's easy to understand why. They've been mired in mediocrity (at best) for the vast majority of their time spent in the desert, don't possess the financial ability to spend to the salary cap limit, have struggled immensely with ownership issues, dealt with crippled attendance figures due to the fallout from that aforementioned inept ownership, and always seem to have that aura of inevitability when it comes to the nasty term "relocation".

As unfair as it may be, all of these factors tend to paint a picture of an organization that shouldn't be considered a legitimate threat. Which, in reality, couldn't be farther from the truth.

Heading into tonight's game against the Coyotes, the San Jose Sharks are in first place of the Pacific Division. They sit two points ahead of Phoenix with a game in hand, and hold the wins less shootout wins tiebreaker by one. Furthermore, San Jose has won all three games played against the Coyotes in regulation, meaning that if things were to progress to the third tiebreaker (greater number of points earned in games between the two clubs), San Jose would need just one more point against Phoenix (an overtime loss for example) to gain the edge in this situation.

The Sharks are clearly in the driver's seat here but, as we examined on Thursday, a whole lot can change in the matter of two weeks.

San Jose plays Phoenix three times down the stretch. A Coyotes regulation win puts the two team dead even in points, and although the Sharks would have a game in hand, San Jose's strength of schedule is the toughest in the Pacific down the stretch, meaning there aren't a whole lot of gimme games left on the docket. Phoenix's schedule isn't much easier of course (they have to play San Jose three times), but they benefit from a home heavy schedule that has them playing four games in the confines of Arena.

The point I'm trying to make here isn't that the Sharks are in dire straits-- for all intents and purposes they should win the Division, especially when one considers their roster is deeper and boasts more high-end talent than what the Coyotes have to offer. The point is that this game is an excellent opportunity for San Jose to make the road to their fourth straight Division title a whole lot easier. A regulation win tonight sets the stage where Phoenix probably has to win out and keep San Jose from acquiring any loser points in the last two games of the year in order to overtake the lead. A regulation loss means it's back to square one, or at least as close as you can get to it.

Ilya Bryzgalov likely starts in net tonight for the Yotes'. San Jose has handled him pretty well this season (7 G in 2 GP), but there's not a soul on this Earth who feels confident going up against him in a playoff series. Keith Yandle on the blueline and Shane Doan/Ray Whitney up front are the players who provide the bulk of Phoenix's scoring output. Outside of that the Coyotes don't really have a wealth of impact talent that can take over a game. I think you can make a case for Dave Tippet once again this year in regards to the Jack Adams award-- the fact that he's continued to deal with reduced payroll, immense off-ice distractions, and still put his team in position for a playoff run makes him as good of a candidate as any.

Also, if you're looking for an excellent two-way forward who flies under the radar, watch Martin Hanzal tonight. He's had some really good battles with Joe Thornton over the years and has the ability to set the tone of the game by taking out whatever line he is matched up against.

As for San Jose, Marc-Edouard Vlasic was a scratch on Thursday night due to some minor bumps and bruises. No telling whether or not he'll be in tonight. Kent Huskins and Scott Nichol are unlikely to play.

Prediction: Sharks win 3-2. Goals by Thornton, Couture, and Demers.