SAN JOSE -- If the Sharks know whats good for them, and they so often dont, they will regard Tuesdays 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers as their first playoff game of the 2012 season.
The Sharks found the energy they had left in the airport locker at San Jose International 17 days ago, and played with a frantic purpose that they will have to replicate from this point on if they intend (a) not to miss the playoffs and (b) not to be a four-and-done.
The Sharks are what the standings say they are -- a sixth-place team, and four of the five ahead of them have legitimate claim to say they are better than The Fin. They have been the sixth-best team for a long time now, even though as the Western Division leaders they sat third in your morning standings and therefore looked better in printer ink than they have in real life.
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But the religion they got after their nine-game, five-point road trip has always been difficult for them to recreate consistently. The high revs provided by the full roster -- especially new arrival Daniel Winnik as the right side of the Joe Pavelski-Patrick Marleau line -- were a sight for jaded Sharks fans to behold.
And the defense, which had passed shoddy and eased into borderline unsightly on the trip, was considerably better, keeping the mess in front of goalie Antti Niemi manageable if not necessarily orderly. The Flyers 26 shots seemed a lot more like 38, and the saves Niemi didnt make were goalmouth scrambles that the Flyers will count at somewhere between four and eight goals they should have had.
But thats playoff hockey, and so was the low number of penalties called by Mike Leggo and Marc Joannette. Either by virtue of their veteran status, their understanding that two frustrated teams needed to blow off steam, or having an early flight, the two handled a very physical game like Montessori school teachers, calling only three penalties the entire night, one a delay of game on Colin White for shooting a puck over the glass.
Thus left to settle their issues dhomme a homme, the Sharks and Flyers produced a taut and physical thriller that could only have been better if it led to another game in a series of them.
San Jose isnt there yet, though. Their first period issues, the penalty kill issues and their inconsistency issues all conspire against their skill and general work rate to put in a position where they cannot realistically catch Vancouver or Detroit at the top of the Western Conference. Their world narrows to the Pacific Division, because there isnt much difference between third and ninth except for the golf and hunting.
Thus, San Jose, which has grown accustomed to taking their playoff plans for granted, has a more frantic finish of their own to undertake. Fourteen of their last 20 games are against either playoff locks or contenders, and 11 of those 20 and nine of the final 11 are against division opponents.
In sum, its white-knuckle time for a team that in years past was credited with having a nice manicure. These last 20 games are a hard slog for teams from six through 15, and the Sharks are No. 6. These are the playoffs, starting now, and every slow start, flat effort, bad goalie night or just plain blah performance is a knee in the nethers.
It doesnt get simpler than that. But for the Sharks, who havent experienced this sort of thing for 12 years now, simpler is often not simple enough, so well lay it out for everyone.
There are no more games to give away, period. The playoffs are now. They ignore that at their peril.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for CSNBayArea.com.