Monday March 9th, 2015

Sitting comfortably in the Atlantic Division’s third spot, the Red Wings are about to extend the NHL’s longest active playoff appearance streak to an astounding 24 seasons.

The holders of the second longest postseason streak might not make it to 11.

A frustrating season marred by porous defense, inconsistent scoring and the inability to protect home ice—they lost all eight games played at San Jose’s SAP Center in February—has the Sharks on the verge of early elimination.

San Jose was in second place in the Pacific Division as recently as Feb. 1, but enters the home stretch five points behind the Flames for third and the second wild card berth. That’s a sizable gap to close with just 16 games left on the schedule, especially with the defending champion Kings standing between the Sharks and both wild-card spots.

The wizards at sportclubstats.com have crunched the numbers and they don’t like San Jose’s chances, putting them at just 15.9%. To earn something close to a 50-50 shot at making the playoffs, the the Sharks need to finish the regular season on an 11-5-0 tear.

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That’s a tall order, but not impossible. San Jose has already managed one similar stretch of excellent play this season, winning 12 of 17 games from Nov. 29 through Jan. 6. And the schedule might just work out in the Sharks' favor ... if they can survive March.

San Jose has six home games remaining—probably a blessing, even considering its performance at home last month—with 10 more on the road, including a brutal seven-game swing (primarily through the East) that, ultimately, will define its season. The Sharks also have little margin for error, with four games remaining against high-end Cup contenders: the Penguins (March 9 and 29), the Predators (March 12) and the Blackhawks (March 14).

If San Jose can emerge from this stretch with something like a 6–4 mark, they may be able to make up ground in April, when the Sharks will play five consecutive opponents who are headed for the draft lottery: the Avalanche (April 1), the Coyotes (April 3 and 4), the Stars (April 6) and the Oilers (April 9). Those aren’t gimmes by any means—San Jose has lost both of its games against the doormat Sabres, and is 2–2 against almost-as-woeful Edmonton—but they are potential points that a playoff-worthy team should bank.

The Sharks then close out the season in Los Angeles (April 11), one of the only two remaining games that give them a chance to make up ground on a team they’re trailing (the other is against the Jets on March 17).

To get where they need to go they will need more from several players, starting between the pipes. San Jose ranks 22nd in the league, allowing an average of 2.74 goals per game, the most for the team since the 2005–06 season. Goalie Antti Niemi is in the midst of his worst year in San Jose, ranking 25th among NHL starters with a 2.62 goals-against average, and 23rd with a .913 save percentage. More concerning: He’s 1-4-0 with a 2.65 goals-against average in his last five starts. Alex Stalock has offered little in the way of support. His numbers have sagged to 2.66 and .904 this year from 1.87 and .932 last season. Between them, Niemi and Stalock have allowed 50 goals in the Sharks’ last 16 games (an average of 3.13).

The goalies are not alone in their struggles. Poor defensive play has been a constant sore spot this season. Brent Burns is terrific on the attack, but he continues to be an adventure in his own zone. On Saturday night alone he made (or didn’t make) plays that directly led to all three Canucks goals in a crucial 3–2 loss. Coach Todd McLellan has no choice but to finish the season with Burns as part of his top pair, but it’s clear by now that he’s ill-equipped to play the blue line on a contender.

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And Burns isn’t the only problem on the back end. Matt Irwin’s upper body injury has forced Scott Hannan into a more prominent role, which might be too much for the veteran based on how much time Vancouver spent in San Jose’s zone when he was on the ice. There’s no telling how long Irwin might be out, but a prolonged spell would be a cause for concern, especially for a penalty kill that’s already operating at just 79.1% (25th in the league).

The team’s issues aren’t as pronounced up front. The power play is clicking at 21.8%, fifth best. Joe Pavelski is closing in on another 40-goal season. Joe Thornton remains one of the game’s elite playmakers. Logan Couture has been solid. Melker Karlsson has been a pleasant surprise, with 11 goals in 37 games since he was called up from AHL Worcester. But there are no signs of life from Patrick Marleau, who is on pace for his worst offensive season since 2007–08; he showed why when he missed a glorious opportunity to bury the Canucks with a goal that would have given the Sharks a 3–1 lead on Saturday night. And Tomas Hertl has clearly sagged under the weight of sophomore expectations while playing out of his natural position (center) for much of the season. Ultimately the top-six firepower that helped cover for a lack of production from the bottom end of the depth chart in the past isn’t there this season.

Those are a lot of blemishes to cover, but individually none of them are insurmountable. If San Jose can catch a couple of bounces—bounces that seem to have been going against them lately the Sharks have got a shot. But it’s a long one.

 

 

 

 

 

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