It wasn’t long ago that the Dallas Stars appeared to be the best of the Pacific Division but it didn’t take long for them to come back down to earth and play like many expected when the season began. This left first place open for the taking and while the Los Angeles Kings – a team many believed had Stanley Cup aspirations at the start of the season – pressed the panic button and fired their coach, the San Jose Sharks have remained under the radar and are now in sole possession of the division’s top spot.
The Sharks know all too well about first place, finishing atop the division each of the last five seasons but San Jose has fallen apart in the playoffs with their last two exits coming in the Western Conference Finals. Every year the team makes changes, some major, some minor but the end result is the same. But it’s a new season and anything can happen when the postseason comes around, which begs the question of whether or not the Sharks can finish first for the sixth straight season.
Last night’s effort in Minnesota proved that the Sharks are feisty and that they can score with ease. Despite losing to the Wild in a 5-4 shootout loss, San Jose trailed by two late in the third period before scoring a pair of goals just 22 seconds apart, forcing overtime and guaranteeing the team a point in a game that seemed all but lost. Every point counts, especially considering just how close the lead for the top spot in the division is at the halfway point of the season. With last night’s point, the Sharks’ 51 points put them two ahead of Los Angeles, four points ahead of Dallas and five points ahead of Phoenix for the lead. The Sharks – who have won four of the last five games – have the upper hand and not just in the points department. The three teams behind San Jose all lack one thing – experience.
Even though the Sharks have had their woes in the playoffs, guys like Joe Thorton, Patrick Marleau and Ryane Clowe continue to help them claim one of the top three seeds year-in and year-out. Thorton – who has eight points in the last six games – is almost on a point per game pace this season, while Marleau – the team’s longest tenured player – is second in goals with 16, one behind second-year budding star Logan Couture.
The Sharks certainly haven’t had problems putting the puck in the net this season, averaging 2.85 goals-per-game which ranks 11th in the NHL. Surprisingly, with all of the Sharks’ goals, the powerplay is not thriving, scoring 18 percent of the time which is right in the middle of the pack.
For as good as the offense has been, the defense has not been quite as good. Led by Dan Boyle, the Sharks’ defense is filled with a mixture of experience and youth and though San Jose has counted on the youth to step up this season there is no guarantee it will last all season. Injuries have also hindered the team’s defense, as Colin White and Jim Vandermeer have both mixed significant time this season.
As for in between the pipes, the Sharks have a Stanley Cup winner – Antti Niemi. Niemi was a guy that got hot for the Chicago Blackhawks at the right time in 2010 and after enjoying his time with the cup, he was shipped out of town due to money restrictions. It might have proved to be a mistake that could come back to haunt them. This season, Niemi is 18-7-5 with a 2.33 goals-against-average, proving to be the best goaltender in the division this season.
The Sharks have their holes but it is tough to argue their recent regular season success and with the inconsistency of the teams around them, it would seem as though the Sharks are the team to beat, at least until another team proves otherwise.