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  games, we just want to put wins together.”