Sharks Still Circling

INSIDE SHARKS
by Tom Walker
February 13, 2011

Red Hot Goalie Antii Niemi

The San Jose Sharks continued their post-All Star Game dominance this past week on a swing through the Eastern time zone, winning their fourth straight against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday. Antti Niemi recorded back-to-back shutouts for the first time in his career, blanking the Capitals with 25 saves en route to his fourth shutout of the season. Logan Couture continued to dazzle with his rookie-leading 24th goal of the season, setting an NHL rookie record with seven game-winning goals on the road and his eighth overall, putting him ahead of the home team’s Alex Ovechkin for the league lead.

Sharks' Rookie Sensation Logan Couture

One night later in Columbus it was the Blue Jackets on the losing end of the Sharks’ feeding frenzy, as San Jose overcame a two-goal first period deficit to win 3-2 and extend their streak to five in a row. On this occasion it was Patrick Marleau playing the hero, recording his 20th goal of the season with less than five minutes remaining in the third period. The victory lifted the Sharks to a 9-0-1 record over their previous ten games.

Marleau picked up where he left off on Friday, scoring the first goal of the game against the New Jersey Devils during the second period. Unfortunately for the Sharks, the Devils came back with two of their own including the game-winner by Ilya Kovalchuk with 3:59 left in the game to bring an end to San Jose’s consecutive game points streak. The Devils came into the match-up with a deceptive 21-30-4 record. Over the prior 14 games they were burning up the Eastern Conference with an 11-1-2 run, and have now won more than half of their 22 victories since January 9.

On Sunday, the Sharks opened up the scoring in Florida, taking a 1-0 lead in the first period as defenseman Kent Huskins notched his second goal in three games. After allowing a second period goal to the Panthers’ Mike Santorelli, San Jose went up 2-1 early in the third when Joe Pavelski netted a wrist shot past Florida’s Tomas Vokoun. For the second straight game, however, the Sharks couldn’t hold their lead, giving up goals to Chris Higgins halfway through the third and to Jason Garrison with just 2:01 remaining in a 3-2 loss.

Despite these back-to-back losses, San Jose is guaranteed a winning road trip having gone 4-2 with one more stop in Nashville on Tuesday. The boys in teal will finally return for some home cooking at HP Pavilion on Thursday when the Capitals come to town to seek revenge for last week’s loss. On Saturday, the Colorado Avalanche will attempt to keep their fading season alive.

Pacific Division Claustrophobia – Part Deux
One week ago this column marveled at the tightness of the Pacific Division, where just five points separated the first-place Dallas Stars from the last-place Los Angeles Kings. Amazingly, at the conclusion of Sunday’s play, that differential has now shrunk to an unfathomable three points with no more than one game-in-hand separating division rivals.

To put this unusual late-season situation into perspective, the last time the Pacific was this close was December 12. Between then and January 21, the Stars widened the gap with their division rivals (including a 14-point lead over the Kings), and appeared to be cruising towards their first division banner since 2006. But then the Stars went supernova and faded precipitously (2-5-1) in conjunction with the meteoric rise of their rivals, with the Kings picking up points in nine straight games (7-0-2), the Sharks putting together a 9-0-1 string before falling over the weekend to the Devils and Panthers, and with the Anaheim Ducks going 5-1-0 over the same span.

The Sharks currently occupy the seventh playoff slot in the Western Conference, but a mere two points separate them from a tie for third in the conference and first in the division with the Stars and Ducks. Looking downward in the standings, five hungry teams are positioned within five points of the Sharks, four of which have won at least seven of their last ten games.

With the trade deadline looming just two weeks away, there appears to be a lot more potential buyers than sellers as general managers and coaches attempt to work some magic putting the finishing touches on their rosters for the stretch run. Does Sharks GM Doug Wilson like his team just the way it is, or will he risk altering the current chemistry by pulling the trigger on another late season move in the hopes of bolstering his chances at winning Lord Stanley’s Cup? It’s entirely possible that he doesn’t even know the answer to that question himself yet. With so many teams remaining in the hunt, trade decisions may very well go right down to the wire.

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