With their longest layoff of the season all but behind them, the Sharks' task ahead of them on an upcoming four-game road trip is clear.
"I don't use it as a measuring stick for the rest of the season by any means, but we have to get some points," coach Bob Boughner told reporters Tuesday morning in a video conference. "I think that we've got to stay in the pack and make up some games that we're behind."
San Jose will play its first game in over a week when the trip begins with a back-to-back set against the Anaheim Ducks on Friday, followed by two games against the Los Angeles Kings beginning next Tuesday. The Ducks and Kings are the Sharks' closest geographic rivals, and two of their nearest foes in the Western Division standings.
Anaheim (4-5-2 entering Wednesday) has 10 points in 11 games, while LA (3-4-2) has eight in nine. San Jose (3-5-0) has six in eight, the fewest in the division.
The Sharks finished last in the Pacific Division last season, and were one of seven teams that didn't participate in the NHL's expanded postseason when the season resumed in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, AB amid the coronavirus pandemic. San Jose was 4-2-0 against its in-state rivals, and those games carry additional weight this season.
Sixteen games against the Ducks and Kings represent over a quarter of the Sharks' 56-game, intra-division schedule. Taking care of business against their Southern California rivals will go a long way toward making the playoffs.
"I think we all can agree that you're gonna see Vegas, Colorado and more likely St. Louis in a playoff spot, so all the rest of us are fighting for that fourth spot," Boughner continued. "When we play each other, they're essentially four-point games and the message isn't lost amongst our guys."
The Sharks' trip in Anaheim will begin against one of the NHL's hottest goalies. Ducks netminder John Gibson looks like his old self following a down year last season.
Among the 43 goalies who have played at least 200 5-on-5 minutes this season, Gibson ranks 12th in 5-on-5 save percentage (.930) and eighth in goals saved above average (plus-2.67), according to Natural Stat Trick. That's despite facing a higher rate of expected goals per hour (2.52) than all but seven of the aforementioned goalies, and a higher rate of high-danger shots per 60 minutes (8.68) than all but eight.
Gibson is not all that stands in the way of the Sharks to start the road trip, as San Jose will need to improve upon a discouraging performance against the Colorado Avalanche in its last game on Jan. 28. The Sharks have been routinely out-possessed, out-shot and out-chanced in 5-on-5 situations so far this season, and that won't be sustainable in their pursuit of a playoff spot.
Stringing together solid performances against their struggling rivals could help the Sharks' underlying play get right early in the season, and potentially enable San Jose to gain ground in the standings. Boughner stopped short of calling these next four games "a measuring stick," but they will nonetheless prove an effective gauge of the Sharks' hopes for this season.