NHL: Sharks in middle of Western dogfight

San Jose Sharks

Back when the Sharks were in the early stages of turning around
their season, defenseman Douglas Murray predicted that it would be
a wild ride down the stretch.

Unless we win 15 or 20 in a row, every single game we play is
going to be important,

Murray said in early February.
SAN JOSE

Back when the Sharks were in the early stages of turning around their season, defenseman Douglas Murray predicted that it would be a wild ride down the stretch.

“Unless we win 15 or 20 in a row, every single game we play is going to be important,” Murray said in early February.

Well, the Sharks have gone 15-2-1 since mid-January. But even with that sizzling run, Murray’s point still stands. The Western Conference remains a remarkably tight dogfight with six weeks remaining in the regular season.

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The surging Sharks (36-21-6) may be third in the West standings heading into Tuesday night’s game against Colorado at HP Pavilion.

But they also are just six points away from slipping out of the playoff picture again. The other teams in the ultracompetitive Pacific Division race all remain within striking distance should the Sharks stumble.

“We’re not sitting here thinking we’re some great hockey team,” Murray added Monday. “We’re supposed to be in this position. But we could still lose a couple of games and be on the outside looking in.”

While they haven’t been able to create much separation, the Sharks have achieved something important. With 19 games left, they now control their own destiny.

The Sharks have a favorable schedule with 13 of those games at the Shark Tank. But with 10 contests remaining against division opponents, absolutely nothing is settled.

“We’re not out of the danger zone yet,” Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. “Our fate is our own hands, and that’s nice. But we can’t stop winning and gaining points.”

General manager Doug Wilson did give this group of players a vote of confidence Monday by not making any more roster changes as the NHL’s trade deadline passed.

The Sharks already had spent recent weeks making gradual upgrades to the lineup with the additions of Kyle Wellwood, Ben Eager and Ian White. All are piece-of-the-puzzle variety players who quietly have made the team stronger.

“I’m no GM, but things have been going well,” Patrick Marleau said. “We all know that Doug will do anything to make our team better. But this shows he’s pretty confident in us.”

The team has earned it with the current hot streak. But continuing the run will mean that one of the NHL’s best road teams now must convert that success to home ice. The Sharks are a pedestrian 15-10-3 at the Shark Tank.

Any time you’re not playing on the road, “that’s an advantage,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “But you have to be aware that any kind of letup here at home will be a disaster.”

Also besides slumping Colorado, the first opponent in a season-long six-game homestand, virtually every team the Sharks will face in the closing weeks is fighting for its playoff life.

That’s a byproduct of the NHL’s most intriguing story of the season—the astounding parity in the West.

“It’s insane,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz told The Associated Press this week.

Added Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom: “If you don’t play well, someone is going to take your spot.”

Sharks left wing Ryane Clowe said when he watches games on TV, he has given up trying to figure out which team he should be rooting for.

“It feels like we won 10 games in a row and somehow we lost ground,” Clowe said. “I don’t know how that happened. It’s just crazy. I know I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The Sharks actually have won six consecutive games. But Phoenix and Los Angeles, in particular, continue to nip at their heels in the Pacific. And the Kings made one of the most significant deadline deals Monday by trading for Edmonton left wing Dustin Penner.

Translation: It won’t get any easier for the Sharks down the stretch.

“We’ve crawled out the grave, if you will … and that’s encouraging,” McLellan added. “But we still have a quarter of the schedule left. We can’t take our foot off the gas pedal. We can’t start backsliding.”

Or else.

— Story by Mark Emmons, San Jose Mercury News

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