For all the talk of parity in the NHL, this year’s playoff races are lacking a little intrigue. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like a majority of clubs in both conferences had a chance at a post-season berth, but teams have really spread apart recently. Realistically, only three teams in the East are battling for the final wild card position, while only two in the West seem like contenders at this point.
Even the divisional races have gotten a bit boring. Boston, by virtue of a ten game winning streak, is running away with the Atlantic with a 14 point lead over Tampa Bay. In the Metropolitan, Pittsburgh, despite some recent struggles, boasts the same 14 point lead over their nearest competition, Philadelphia. Even St. Louis has a healthy six point lead over Chicago in the Central with a game in hand. However, there is one battle ground proving to be very interesting: the battle for the Pacific.
Before the season, every astute hockey observer would have been able to tell you what has turned out to be true, namely that the Pacific was going to be a war zone. While there were some surprises (Vancouver’s fall from grace), most of what we expected has come to pass. Edmonton and Calgary are horrible, Phoenix just won’t die, and Los Angeles is one of the best defensive teams in the league but struggles to score.
However, when it comes to the cream of the crop in the Pacific, nobody gets past San Jose and Anaheim. Both teams have proven to be elite Stanley Cup contenders, and both are desperate to add another division crown to their resumes. Aside from a freakish performance from the Coyotes in 2011-12, either the Sharks or the Ducks have won every Pacific division title since 2006.
This season’s outcome will be no different, though how we have gotten to the point of San Jose sitting just two points up on the Ducks after last night has been very interesting and the sprint to the finish could well prove captivating for both clubs.
At the end of January, Anaheim held a commanding lead. They had just breezed through the previous two months with a sparkling 22-4-1 record and opened up a huge 11-point cushion over the Sharks. However, some inconsistent play since then (including a record of 5-7-2) has given the Sharks the opening they needed.
At the same time Anaheim’s hot streak ended, San Jose’s began. Since the beginning of February, the Sharks have gone 12-2-1. While some might point to a soft schedule (only three of those games were against a team ahead of them in the standings), it doesn’t change the fact that the Sharks made some serious hay. They’ve scored less than three goals only four times in the last 13 outings, and last night’s game against the Ducks allowed them to finally get in front of their state rival.
It was a game in which San Jose showed its mettle. Down 2-1 in the third period, the sublime Joe Thornton, showing he still has what it takes at age 34, scored to tie the game then set-up Brent Burns for the winner with just under four minutes to go. Final score: 3-2, with the Sharks moving past the Ducks into first in the Pacific.
With San Jose firing on all cylinders and Anaheim struggling to find consistency, where do we go from here? For one thing, both have incredibly easy schedules heading down the stretch and how they perform against lesser competition with their own playoff position secure will be very telling.
The Ducks will face just three playoff teams over their remaining 12 games (including three games against last-place Edmonton) and also hold a game in hand over the Sharks. That Anaheim was crushed 7-2 by a weak Calgary squad with a rookie goaltender in net just one week ago shows that their heads aren’t quite where they are supposed to be at the moment however.
It’s up to coach Bruce Boudreau and team leaders Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf to show the way. Given the amount of experience on the club, and their desire to best the rival Sharks, they have every opportunity to turn things around and match the pace San Jose has set recently.
Conversely, the Sharks are going to need to show a bit of gumption. Of their remaining 11 games, San Jose is going to be facing stiffer competition than the Ducks, with five of their opponents in a playoff position, including two games against the Colorado Avalanche, one against the stingy Kings and one against Phoenix. All three teams have proved troublesome for the Sharks this season (just one regulation win in nine combined games).
Come the end of the regular season though, all those games might not matter. The real game that both these teams will have circled on the calender is going to be on April 9th, when the Sharks visit the Honda Center in Anaheim, potentially with the Pacific Division title on the line. So far in the season series, San Jose has taken two of the three games, with both teams netting nine goals.
Keep your eyes peeled for that one. With all the other NHL divisions basically decided, and the playoff races featuring just a small handful of teams, the battle for the Pacific next month just might be the game of the season anywhere in the NHL.
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photo credit: Dinur via photopin cc