It’s hard not to appreciate what the San Jose Sharks have done so far this season, but before the Bay Area maps out a ghost-riding parade route, it’s critical to look at what the Men of Teal need to accomplish between now and then.
Normally, it would be the defending Stanley Cup champions with the main target on their back. And while the Detroit Red Wings realized in a Game 1 loss to Toronto they’d be facing a lot of jealous squads this season, the remarkable success of the Sharks has made San Jose the team other franchises are measuring their seasons by.
To wit: in December, after nearly beating the Sharks earlier in the month, Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock cited his team’s rematch with San Jose as a pivotal game if his Blue Jackets were to consider themselves a playoff team. Sure enough, the Jackets played the Sharks tough and rode a beautiful give-and-go between Kristian Huselius and R.J. Umberger to an overtime win. Less than three weeks later, the Jackets are sitting in a playoff position.
Even bad teams are using San Jose as a sort of consolation prize now. The St. Louis Blues are going nowhere fast and with injuries to key contributors such as Paul Kariya, Erik Johnson and Jay McKee they aren’t likely to compete for anything other than the draft lottery. But when the Blues hosted the Sharks on Dec. 27, they gave San Jose all they could handle and St. Louis won in a shootout thanks to Brad Winchester, who had the hot hand that night.
Now let’s flip the script for a second. Other than losing just four games in regulation (none at home) through 38 contests, how have the Sharks distinguished themselves? Since going on that incredible run to begin the season, San Jose’s marquee matchup naturally came against the Red Wings; the team the Sharks are now modeled after and from whom they hired stellar rookie coach Todd McLellan.
I was super-stoked for the Sharks-Wings tilt Dec. 18, but after an initial first-period siege, The Fish were slapped down by the reigning champs, 6-0. It was so out of hand, in fact, I flipped over to watch Columbus and Dallas instead.
If the Sharks are truly going to be considered Stanley Cup front-runners, they need to rack up some statement wins from here on out and not become another team’s statement win.
And as always, Detroit will provide the template. The Red Wings are coming off back-to-back wins over the upstart Chicago Blackhawks, including the high-profile Winter Classic victory. It was like watching an older sibling reminding his kid brother who the best scrapper in the family is, no matter how big the youngster may be getting.
So where can the Sharks make their hay? There are several opportunities around the bend.
First off, a face-saving rematch with Detroit Jan. 17. Yeah, San Jose beat the Wings in late October, but now it’s serious. That 6-0 loss in Detroit is a stain and it needs to be removed.
The Sharks will also meet up with Boston – the beasts of the East and the top contenders to knock San Jose off its perch as the No. 1 team in the league – on the road Feb. 10, followed by a date with Crosby, Malkin and the Penguins in the Igloo the following night.
Come away with some wins in those matches and it will finally be time to believe the Sharks can make noise come April.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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