Sharks, Wild stumble toward NHL playoffs
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) Just a few weeks ago, the San Jose Sharks had visions of tracking down the Chicago Blackhawks for the best record in the Western Conference and home-ice advantage for the first three rounds of the playoffs.
The team's longest losing streak in six years ended those hopes and now has the Sharks scrambling just to secure home-ice for the opening round. Even after snapping a six-game losing streak with a 5-4 victory over the New York Rangers on Tuesday night, San Jose is in a tight four-team battle in the Pacific Division for playoff positioning.
''It's one good game,'' goalie Martin Jones said. ''To put it in perspective, we lost six in a row. So, we have to remember how hard it was to win, the effort that it took and make sure we keep moving forward from that.''
The Sharks are not alone when it comes to Cup contenders stumbling to the finish of the regular season. Minnesota, which entered the month in a tight race with Chicago and San Jose for the best record in the West, has lost 12 of 15 in March with two of those wins coming against the Sharks.
The Wild lost 5-4 in overtime to Washington on Tuesday in a performance that gave coach Bruce Boudreau hope for a turnaround.
''It's always darkest before the dawn, that's a saying, and I truly believe that,'' he said. ''It's getting better. Another saying I use is the difference between a rut and a groove. For 65 games we were in a pretty good groove. And now we're sort of in a rut, trying to get out of that rut. But a rut and a groove are the same thing, only with different meanings.''
These kinds of stretches aren't new for the Wild, who had similar slides in each of their four non-lockout seasons under previous coach Mike Yeo before making the playoffs three of those years.
The Wild were proud of their ability to sidestep a losing streak under Boudreau, going from Nov. 5 until Mar. 2 without consecutive defeats. Now they're in one of those familiar swoons, with worse timing to boot. Not only will they enter the playoffs without much momentum, but Nashville is within seven points for second place in the Central Division.
''It doesn't just turn around,'' forward Jason Zucker said. ''You can't just turn it on and off. You've got to start with one period and make it a second period and then a third period and that should win a game. You have to do the same thing over again and over again and over again.''
The Rangers are also stumbling toward the playoffs with four losses in five games. But they have little to play for down the stretch, needing just one point to secure the top wild-card spot and a first-round matchup with the Atlantic Division winner, rather than having to go through the much tougher Metropolitan Division.
''We know that our game isn't where it has to be for us to be successful in the playoffs,'' Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said. ''But we have some games here to fine tune things.''
Even the team with the most points in the NHL hasn't been immune to a late-season slump. Washington lost three straight in regulation in California earlier this month as part of a four-game losing streak, but has won six of seven since to maintain the top record in the league.
''Since the California trip it shows our maturity as a group, how we kept our focus through that and playing good hockey now,'' goaltender Braden Holtby said. ''That's learning from our mistakes on that California trip and making sure we're better in this road trip and focus on playing good road games and collecting hard-earned points.''
But at least these recent slumps likely won't cost the Sharks or Wild a playoff berth. They both have clinched spots and are playing for positioning. Minnesota has a seven-point lead over Nashville with six games to go and is likely locked into second place in the Central.
The Sharks are in a much more competitive race in the Pacific. They entered Wednesday tied with Edmonton for second place, two points behind Anaheim and three up on Calgary with six games to go.
The key now is getting their level of play ready for the playoffs.
''We control our game, that's what I'm worried about,'' San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said. ''I'm not worried about our destiny or anything else. We're going to be a playoff team. I want our game in the right place heading into the playoffs. Whatever seed we end up with, whoever we draw in the first round, there are no easy matchups and there are no preferred matchups. We just have to make sure our game is in the right place.''
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in St. Paul, Minnesota, and AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington contributed to this report