Headed into the final 25 games of the season, the Sharks are in a familiar place, but under unfamiliar circumstances.
San Jose leads the Pacific Division 57 games into its season for the second time in four years under coach Peter DeBoer. That’s yet to translate into a division crown, but the team has been in this spot at this point in the season before.
The rest of the Pacific? Well, it’s a bit of a mess.
The Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes, recent cellar-dwellers, are on the wild-card bubble. The Calgary Flames, who seemingly have been tethered to said bubble in recent years, are nipping at the Sharks’ heels (fins?).
The Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks, perpetual playoff teams, are more likely to lose for (projected No. 1 overall pick Jack) Hughes than chase down a postseason berth. The former might or might not trade their prized free-agent acquisition after all of eight months, and the latter is being coached by a general manager who is also a first-time NHL coach.
The Vegas Golden Knights, meanwhile, are pretty much locked into the third and final divisional spot and coach Gerard Gallant recently raised concerns about complacency. As Pro Hockey Talk’s James O’Brien noted, that’s not too abnormal … until you realize a team in its second year of existence is headed for a second consecutive playoff berth.
Oh, and the Edmonton Oilers are on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. At least something isn’t out of the ordinary.
Amid the topsy-turvy nature of the Pacific, the Sharks are on arguably their best run of the season. They’ve won 13 of 16 since the start of the new calendar year, and own the NHL’s longest active winning streak.
Their underlying numbers are holding up, too. Since Jan. 1, San Jose is also no worse than 10th in any of the major five-on-five puck possession metrics by Natural Stat Trick’s tally, and is seventh in Corsica’s expected-goals measure.
The Sharks likely won’t continue to win 81 percent of their games the rest of the way, but staying hot and capitalizing on the division’s chaos will be especially important down the stretch.
For one, San Jose could secure home-ice advantage in the first round for the first time under DeBoer. That would be a nice bonus for a team that has advanced to the second round in two of the last three seasons without it, and ensures a decisive seventh game would be played at SAP Center -- where the Sharks are 18-4-4.
But San Jose’s aspirations should not stop there. Winning the division for the first time in eight years, and the Western Conference for the first time in nine, would give the team a more favorable path through the playoffs.
By winning the division, the Sharks would likely avoid a first-round dogfight with the Golden Knights. Vegas remains a formidable puck-possession team despite recently hitting the skids, and has challenged San Jose over the last two seasons. A matchup in the second round, or avoiding one entirely, would be far more amenable for a deep playoff run.
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That’s not to say playing a Wild Card team would be a cakewalk. The St. Louis Blues are surging, and the Minnesota Wild are a strong possession team in their own right. This being the NHL, a league over which parity reigns above all else, first-round “upsets” are simply par for the course.
Yet as things stand right now, that looks to be an easier route in the postseason. Second place in the Pacific could mean playing Vegas and Calgary in the first two rounds, followed by whoever emerges from a likely Winnipeg Jets-Nashville Predators bloodbath in the Central Division.
The Sharks are in position to set up a preferable playoff path, in part because of the division’s aforementioned turbulence. Nearly one-third of their remaining games are against teams in the Pacific, and that includes a home back-to-back against Vegas and Calgary at the end of March.
If they can take advantage of these rather unfamiliar circumstances, they should end up on an easier road to the ultimate goal of the Stanley Cup.