by Tom Walker
March 7, 2011
When the San Jose Sharks embarked upon their latest road trip a couple of weeks ago, they had just wrapped up an 8-2-0 record in the ten contests immediately following the All-Star game and were hanging just one point behind the Phoenix Coyotes for first place in the Pacific Division. Over the course of that road trip, the Sharks rattled off a succession of three one-goal victories in just four days over the Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Calgary Flames, including two overtime conquests, to propel themselves firmly atop the Pacific heading into the NHL trade deadline.
Armchair General Managers throughout Silicon Valley had their wish lists ready, each with their own ideas about what final moves might be made to transform this year’s team from annual contender into a Stanley Cup Champion. As we all know, Sharks’ GM Doug Wilson is the only person drawing a paycheck to actually make this decision. That said, the trade deadline came and went and he stood pat with the team which had just improved its post All-Star record to 11-2-0.
It’s not as if Wilson did nothing in the trade market this year. Over the past several weeks he picked up Kyle Wellwood, Ben Eager, and Ian White, and nobody can argue against the chemistry which has developed. But if anyone was hoping for one final exclamation point, such as landing winger Dustin Penner who instead made his way to the division rival Los Angeles Kings, it wasn’t to be. Sink or swim, Wilson believes in the current squad, and Sharks are built for swimming, aren’t they?
Upon returning to the Shark Tank this past week, San Jose picked up right where it left off with victories over the Colorado Avalanche (a third consecutive overtime win, and back-to-back in shootouts) and the Detroit Red Wings, which had fallen to the Ducks in Anaheim the night before by giving up a rare overtime penalty shot goal to Bobby Ryan. Saturday night brought another beleaguered OT Ducks victim to HP Pavilion, and the Sharks hoped to take advantage of the Dallas Stars’ back-to-back road schedule to notch their ninth consecutive victory. But the fallen Stars had other ideas, snapping the string at eight with a 3-2 regulation win over San Jose which launched Dallas into 3rd place in the Pacific Division and 7th overall in the Western Conference.
Heading into the new week, the Sharks enjoy a 7-point division cushion over the last-place Ducks, the largest division spread of any kind in ages. San Jose will wrap up a six-game home stand with matches against the Nashville Predators (who currently share 9th place in the conference with the Ducks and Minnesota Wild, all of which sit one point behind the Kings for 8th), the NHL-leading Vancouver Canucks, and the New York Rangers.
With 5 weeks to go in the regular season, the Sharks can be cautiously optimistic about having secured a playoff berth. At least 11 of 15 teams in the Western Conference are still viable. The 12th place Columbus Blue Jackets are seven points shy of 8th place, but they have played fewer games than every other team in the NHL and could make a move if they can put a streak together. The 13th place St. Louis Blues will more than likely be singing the blues come April, as their 11-point deficit behind the final playoff spot is almost certainly beyond reach. As for the Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers, they’ve begun checking the standings for different reasons. When the 2011 NHL Draft rolls around at the end of June, they’ll be vying with the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders, and Ottawa Senators for that #1 draft pick. But first, there’s a lot of hockey left to play, and San Jose can be counted among the top candidates to be thinking about June for much better reasons.