Eight games ago, the San Jose Sharks began a six-game swing against division opponents. The stretch included two games against the Calgary Flames, two games against the Vancouver Canucks, plus single games against the Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers. The Sharks took the opportunity to close the gap with the second place Kings and widen the gap with the remaining teams which trailed third-place San Jose in the standings.
For the Sharks, the playoffs remain likely but not certain. Vegas leads the Pacific Division and they are steadily going from a ‘playoff probable’ team to a ‘playoff certain’ team. With the NHL Central Division the league’s strongest, it appears no more than four teams will come from the Pacific Division, perhaps just three.
If we assume Vegas gets a spot in the playoffs, there may be just two playoff spots to be had among the Kings, Sharks, Flames, Oilers and the Anaheim Ducks. The division games have added importance.
Sharks Division Games
The Sharks put a real hurt on the Flames, the first and last opponent in the six-game stretch. San Jose captured all four points while surrendering just one.
Vancouver played the Sharks in the second and fourth game, with each team garnering an overtime win. The Sharks were handed a tough blow in the initial matchup against Vancouver, losing their best player, Logan Couture to a concussion. He missed the four remaining division games before returning on New Year’s Eve against the Dallas Stars.
It seems unlikely the Canucks will be serious playoff contenders, so garnering three of the four available points is a respectable result.
The Sharks topped the Kings in a chippy regulation win while the Oilers grabbed a regulation win over San Jose.
Overall, San Jose managed nine points in the six games, yielding only six.
The wins over Calgary were big. Had the Flames won both games against San Jose, they would lead the Sharks in the standings. Instead, they are four points behind and the Sharks have games in hand.
The Sharks gained ground on the Kings during this stretch, specifically because of the win in San Jose.
The Oilers appeared to turn the corner with wins over Minnesota and St. Louis sandwiched around the win over San Jose. Edmonton’s record finally reached even (17-17-2) for the first time since game two of the season (when they were 1-1-0). But the Oilers followed it up with a four-game losing streak (earning just one point) to fade back. The Sharks loss to Edmonton was a missed opportunity to push this potentially dangerous team further down the standings.
Sharks Risky Position
All in all, the Sharks did well in their recent run against Pacific Division teams, gaining ground against most of their close competitors. Yet danger lurks from below. San Jose projects to 101 points for the season, which gets a playoff spot. But 12 of the Western Conference’s 15 teams are on pace for over 90 points, meaning the Sharks have plenty of close company in the standings.
Even Edmonton still has time to get its act together. Last season, the Oilers’ solid record was built on three hot streaks: 7-1-0 in October, 7-0-1 in January, and 11-2-1 to end the season. The rest of the season they were 22-23-7. Edmonton’s is capable of being mediocre for long stretches, then moving up in a hurry.
Still, the biggest threat is the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks continue to get healthier after a slew of early-season injuries and illnesses slowed the team. They sit fourth in the Pacific and have gone 5-1-0 in their last six games. The Sharks remain a strong contender for a playoff spot, but they’ll need to fend off plenty of competition along the way.
• San Jose split their two road games surrounding New Years Day, a blowout loss to the Dallas Stars and a solid victory over the reeling Montreal Canadiens. This current road trip will finish San Jose’s road games against the Canadian teams in the Eastern Conference. Only one East Coast road trip remains on the Sharks’ schedule – it begins in late January.
• Joe Thornton is a key contributor on the team’s resurgent power play, now fifth-best in the league (goals scored minus goals allowed). The Sharks power play scored nine goals in October but just five in November. Since Dec. 7, the Sharks have played 11 games and scored at least one power play goal in ten. They’ve often been critical goals in close games – five of these 10 games were tied at the end of regulation.
Thornton is the team’s leading scorer with 27 points, with 14 coming on the power play. But at even strength, he has yet to turn the corner. There he has three goals and ten assists for 13 points. He is also minus-nine. In comparison, defenseman Justin Braun has 16 even strength points – 15 assists along with one goal. The Sharks will be a better team if Thornton can contribute more consistently at even strength. He is now eight months removed from his major offseason knee surgery. While this seems like a long time, his knee is probably not fully recovered. If Thornton’s health continues to improve, the second half of the season could prove very productive for him.
• The Sharks were one of only four teams to fall short of 100 goals in the 2017 portion of the 2017-18 season. The other three teams are owners of the league’s three worst records. The Sharks hit the 100-goal mark in the first game of 2018. The flip side, however, is San Jose is one of just four teams which has yet to allow 100 goals. The other three teams are either first or second in their division.
• San Jose has faced challenging attendance issues for several years, often covered up by ticket sales, which seem strong. While some date the problems to the reverse sweep against the Kings, the reality is things have been challenging for a long time. My first sense that things weren’t right came in 2011 during the Western Conference Final series against the Vancouver Canucks. Looking around the venue before Game 4, potentially the most important home game in team history to that point, it seemed a quarter of the crowd wore Canuck jerseys. It’s not the sort of thing which happens when your team has a large and deep fan base.
The ticket sales tell a better story than what one sees at games. Even when attendance is at or near sellout figures, there are typically large numbers of empty seats, sometimes in the thousands. Recently, the Sharks parted company with Flavil Hampsten as the team’s top sales and marketing executive. Hampsten joined the Sharks before the 2015-16 season. Hampsten might not have been the answer, but I’d suggest the problems go deeper than management acknowledges.