SAN JOSE, Calif. – A near-perfect homestand catapulted the San Jose Sharks from a fierce fight just to make it into the NHL playoffs to a battle for home-ice advantage in the opening round.
If the Sharks are going to have any hope of winning that race and finishing in the top four in the Western Conference, they are going to need to take the momentum they built during their recent seven-game winning streak and bring it out on the road, where they have had problems all season.
San Jose left Monday for a four-game trip that begins Tuesday night in Columbus. The Sharks will play six of their final 10 games on the road, where they are just 6-10-2 this season.
“There's been a certain way we've played since we've been home,” forward Joe Pavelski said. “It's been a fairly simple game. On the road that's one of the things you focus on, keeping it simple, keeping the crowd out of it. Don't kill yourself with turnovers and stuff. We did that pretty well here while we were at home. Let's try to take that formula on the road.”
The Sharks turned their season around when they followed a win at first-place Anaheim with six straight at home to go from ninth place to fourth in the Western Conference.
Then just when it seemed like they could do no wrong, the Sharks blew a pair of two-goal leads in the homestand finale against Dallas on Sunday and ultimately fell 5-4 in a shootout, missing a chance to post the longest perfect homestand in NHL history.
San Jose leaves home in fifth place in the West, one point behind Los Angeles with one game in hand over the Kings. The Sharks entered play Monday with a seven-point lead over ninth place Phoenix, giving them a bit of a cushion in terms of making the playoffs.
“We jumped up a few spots in the standings,” forward Tommy Wingels said. “We knew this homestand was important. In the big picture we're happy about it but there's a bitter feeling right now. There are things we need to clean up and move forward.”
Giving the Sharks increased confidence was the fact that this seven-game winning streak was more complete than the franchise record seven-gamer to start the season.
With no preseason and an abbreviated training camp because of the lockout, the Sharks took advantage of continuity to get off to a fast start. They converted on 31 per cent of their power-play chances in that span, with almost all of the scoring being done by the quartet of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Pavelski. They accounted for 21 of the 27 goals in the first seven games and combined for 50 points.
With defenceman Brent Burns moving up to forward recently to combine for a productive line with Thornton and Marty Havlat, and Pavelski dropping to the third line to add depth, the scoring was much more spread out during the second streak with 12 players getting goals and only Pavelski scoring more than three.
“I think we're playing the right way right now, give or take segments of games where we let it get away from us,” coach Todd McLellan said. “Right now we're playing the type of hockey that allows us to win consistently. At the beginning of the year, scoring five or six goals a night, we looked like the Globetrotters there for a while in Edmonton when everything was going our way. We weren't going to continue playing that way. I think we're playing a better brand of game right now. That sets us up for success.”
That wasn't happening during a seven-week stretch in the middle of the season when San Jose lost 17 of 23 games and earned just three regulation wins, raising questions about whether the team would miss the playoffs for the first time since 2002-03.
General manager Doug Wilson then dealt bruising defenceman Douglas Murray to Pittsburgh for draft picks as he started a process of retooling the roster for the future without totally giving up on this season. Trades of little-used centre Michal Handzus and longtime stalwart Ryane Clowe followed.
But as the team's play turned around before last week's trade deadline, Wilson ended up adding reinforcements in deals for forward Raffi Torres and defenceman Scott Hannan because he felt like this team could make a run in the post-season.
“It's not just winning games, it's playing the right way,” Wilson said. “We've played the right way the first seven games of the year and went through a long streak of not playing the right way. But the coaching staff and players are playing a really good 60-minute game and when they play that way I think we can play with anybody.”
Torres made an immediate impact in his first game on Sunday, assisting on two goals and delivering the hard hits than made him reviled in San Jose when he was with the opposition.
He teamed well with Pavelski and TJ Galiardi in what the Sharks hope will be that effective third line that has been lacking in past postseasons.
“He had a lot of energy out there, he was throwing his weight around,” Pavelski said. “He got a few pucks to the net. A lot of good things, simple to play with. Goes in straight lines. Obviously, it's big for our team. He brings speed. He can play.”