SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) The San Jose Sharks head back to the Midwest for their final road trip of the season looking like a far different team than the one that stumbled its way through a tour of the Central Division just last month.
They have the midseason additions of Evander Kane and Eric Fehr to thank for that.
With Kane provide a scoring threat and physical play as a top-line wing and Fehr solidifying the fourth line and penalty kill, the Sharks are playing as well as anyone in the NHL down the stretch with a seven-game winning streak that is the team's longest in five years.
During this streak, they have managed to win wide-open games as well as tight checking ones and have managed to negate the speed of teams such as Vegas as well as deal with more physical play like they had Saturday in a 5-1 win over Calgary.
''I think that's something we're trying to pride ourselves on,'' defenseman Brenden Dillon said. ''Playoffs you're going to meet all sorts of teams, speed teams, teams that can play hard down low. I think we've got the personnel that we're able to match up with those. We're doing things in practice to prepare for them.''
The Sharks are in prime position with just two weeks left in the regular season. They have moved within six points of first-place Vegas in the Pacific Division with seven games remaining, giving them an outside shot at a division title. But perhaps more importantly, they entered Sunday six points ahead of Anaheim and Los Angeles in the race for home-ice advantage in the first round.
It's a far cry from last March when a six-game losing streak cost San Jose a chance at the division title and the team was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by Edmonton. Now they're playing their best hockey in March.
''We're a desperate team,'' Kane said. ''We need all the points we can get. We haven't clinched a playoff spot yet. The teams that are right behind us keep winning. We have to keep pushing forward and keep picking up points as we close out the season in order to secure a spot. It's good to get in that playoff mindset right now.''
Kane has provided a major lift since his arrival in a deadline deal with Buffalo on Feb. 26. He has stepped onto the top line with center Joe Pavelski and provided a scoring threat and some needed toughness to help make up for the absence of Joe Thornton, who has missed two months with a knee injury. Thornton has started skating again, but there is no timetable for his return.
Kane has seven goals and five assists while helping the Sharks to a NHL-best 10-2 record since he arrived. The team is scoring 4.2 goals per game with Kane in the lineup after scoring just 2.8 goals per game before he arrived.
''He's a crucial part to our team,'' center Chris Tierney said. ''You can see how much he brings, whether it's the physicality side or the goal scoring. He adds a lot of depth to us and he's been great for us so far. Just gives us an extra layer of everything.''
While Kane's play has gotten most of the attention, the addition of Fehr just a week earlier has also had a big impact. Fehr has filled a hole at fourth-line center, allowing coach Peter DeBoer the freedom to roll through his lines without fear of mismatches, and added an accomplished penalty killer to a unit that ranks second best in the NHL.
That line has even provided an offensive boost of late, especially since Jannik Hansen moved back into the lineup alongside Fehr and Barclay Goodrow after Joonas Donskoi went down with a shoulder injury.
All three fourth-liners scored goals in a win last Tuesday against New Jersey and Hansen added another in the homestand finale on Saturday against Calgary after failing to score any goals in his first 39 games this season.
''It always helps when you're helping out and you're producing,'' said Hansen, who was a healthy scratch for long portions of the season.
''It gets you momentum, it makes you feel good about the game. The puck doesn't bounce as much, stuff like that. Obviously whenever we can chip in it's a big part. We want to roll four lines and the fourth line is a part of that.''
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