Sharks eye top seed as they head into Minnesota: 'It will be a fun test'

Sharks eye top seed as they head into Minnesota: 'It will be a fun test'

SAN JOSE – The Sharks have steadily increased their lead in the Pacific Division in recent weeks, thanks to a 5-0-3 record in their last eight games, including a three-game winning streak coming out of the bye week.

It’s looking more and more likely that the club will capture its first division title since 2011, with a seven-point lead and a game in hand on Anaheim and Edmonton.

A game on Sunday against the Minnesota Wild, the Central Division leaders heading into Saturday night’s action, begs the question – is the Western Conference’s top seed now in the Sharks’ sights?

“Sure, absolutely,” Pete DeBoer said. “The goal is to finish as high as you can and make your path as easy as possible, as far as home ice and having home ice in the playoffs. That’s something that we’re talking about. Always with an eye behind us and making sure we’re taking care of business that way, but we’re focusing on the teams above us.”

Joel Ward said: “It will be a fun test.”

The Sharks (38-18-7, 83 points) trail the Wild (41-15-6, 88 points) by five points, with Minnesota holding a game in hand. The Chicago Blackhawks are also in the mix with a 41-18-5 mark for 87 points, and can leapfrog the Wild with a win over Nashville on Saturday night (although Chicago will have played three more games than Minnesota).

The Wild own the NHL’s second-ranked offense, with 3.32 goals-per game in what is a terrifically balanced attack. They surrender just 2.35 goals-per game, fourth in the NHL, in front of goalie Devan Dubnyk, the NHL leader in wins (34) and save percentage (.933). Their special teams numbers are strong, too, with the NHL’s fifth-best power play (22.1 percent) and seventh-best penalty kill (84.0).

They also added at the trade deadline, acquiring towering center Martin Hanzal and gritty winger Ryan White.

In the first meeting between the clubs at SAP Center on Jan. 5, the Sharks held the Wild to 11 shots on goal through two periods, maintaining a 2-1 lead. Minnesota exploded for four goals in the third period on 15 shots, though, to win 5-4.

DeBoer, who will remind his troops of those prior events, said: “I don’t think we played two better periods through the first 40 minutes. … It was kind of a tale of two games, and then the floodgates opened and we didn’t handle that adversity well.”

Ward doesn’t expect the same kind of scoring explosion on Sunday.

“I think it will be a little bit closer, a little tighter, for sure,” he said.

The Sharks will be facing a team above them in the standings for the first time since they saw Chicago on Jan. 31 in the first game coming out of the All-Star break. They have one more game after Sunday against the Wild, again in Minnesota, on March 21.

They’ll certainly keep their eye on the Ducks and Oilers, but a pair of wins against the Wild would surely tighten up the race in the Western Conference.

“We could [catch them]. Other teams could catch us,” Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. “There’s still [19] games, we just want to put wins together.”


2019 NHL All-Star Game: Which snubs most deserved trip to San Jose


2019 NHL All-Star Game: Which snubs most deserved trip to San Jose

There will be some notable absences at the 2019 NHL All-Star Game in San Jose. 

Days after scoring a hat trick against the Sharks, Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin will skip the game to rest. Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who recently returned from an injury, is also sitting out.

Both players will be suspended one game for not attending.

And then there are the players who didn’t make it at all.

Yes, we know there will always be snubs. Each of the league’s four divisions have 11 representatives (nine skaters, two goalies), and all 31 teams are required to have at least one All-Star -- at least on the initial roster. That leaves 13 spots for how many deserving candidates? 

But even with that disclaimer in mind, some absences are particularly head-scratching. Considering on-ice performance and in keeping with the spirit of the event, here are a few players we think should've been in San Jose this weekend. 


Sharks' crazy comeback over Capitals is a testament to their character


Sharks' crazy comeback over Capitals is a testament to their character

Suffice to say, just about anyone watching the end of the Sharks-Capitals contest Tuesday night probably assumed the game was over in the last few seconds. Heck, even members of the Sharks thought they were about to lose to the defending Stanley Cup champs before Evander Kane scored the tying goal with one second left in regulation.

“I thought the game was over,” Logan Couture admitted. “I came to the bench and I changed, and I was frustrated. Broke my stick over the bench. And then I look up and Kane’s putting the puck in the net.”

You really do have to hand it to the Sharks. They went into Tuesday’s game on the back end of yet another back-to-back with travel involved. They were coming off their third straight loss --- not to mention their third consecutive game where they’d given up six goals. Plus, they have a banged up starting lineup going up against a desperate Capitals team looking to snap a five-game losing streak of their own. 

Oh, and Alex Ovechkin registered a hat trick. Don’t forget about that part.

But the Sharks hung around. Although San Jose was down two goals partway through the third frame, they kept pushing so Kane could find the back of the net at 19:59 to send it to overtime -- where the Sharks would eventually seal the win.

“The guys knew we were in a tough one tonight,” Sharks’ coach Peter DeBoer told the media after the 7-6 overtime victory. “With the scheduling of it and the way the road trip has gone and some of the injuries we’ve got. We could’ve used it as an excuse and mailed it in at a bunch of different points tonight and we didn’t.

“I think that’s a testament to our character.”

That character helped to catapult the Sharks offense in the third frame after Ovechkin tallied his third goal to give Washington a 6-4 advantage at 5:52 in the period. San Jose kept grinding, with Tomas Hertl capitalizing on the power play halfway through frame and Kane beating Braden Holtby at the final buzzer. The push culminated in overtime when Martin Jones stood his ground in three-on-three play so Couture, Hertl, and Timo Meier could carry the puck the other way. Hertl scored the game-winner, notching his third career hat trick -- which also made him the first player in team history to register a hat trick that included a game-winning goal in overtime.

To top it off, the Sharks didn’t just hand the Capitals their sixth straight loss. It was also the first time Washington lost a game in which Ovechkin scored a hat trick

Kane gave a nod to the team’s resilience while being down. “We never stopped thinking we could get back,” he said. “As long as we kept getting that next goal and [Washington] didn’t make it a three-goal lead. Big win going into the break.”

Speaking of that break, the majority of the Sharks get a 10-day breather with their bye week occurring immediately after All-Star weekend. This team has had a crazy schedule and is facing adversity with the injuries. Getting that win over Washington no doubt allows the team to start that break in a positive frame of mind.

“It’s been a grind,” DeBoer acknowledged. “It’s nice to go into the break with a big emotional win like that. Makes the time a little more enjoyable.”