Arizona Coyotes

Sharks' first round opponent still up in the air as season draws to close

Sharks' first round opponent still up in the air as season draws to close

SAN JOSE – As we predicted midway through February, the San Jose Sharks are going to be battling with the Calgary Flames for first place in the division right down to the wire. Heading into the fourth and final game of their current homestand, San Jose sits on the cusp of taking over the top seed, just one point behind Calgary in the standings.

So, of course, there’s one question on everyone’s minds: Who might the Sharks face in the first round of the playoffs?

As many already know, the Vegas Golden Knights are the likely opponent should San Jose remain in second place. While the Vegas squad has lost some of its oomph in its sophomore season, they’ve held on to that third place spot in the rankings for the latter portion of the regular season.

San Jose has battled Vegas with mixed results this season, including a 6-0 shutout loss on November 24 and an emotional 3-2 victory on January 10. Both games took place at T-Mobile Arena, which has quickly gained a reputation for being a tough building for visiting teams to compete in.

The Golden Knights play the Sharks tough, and to top it off, Marc-Andre Fleury is the winningest netminder in the league this season. But again, this isn’t the same Golden Knights team that steamrolled everyone in their inaugural season, and the Sharks are certainly a more stacked team than they were last year -- especially when they’re healthy.

Long story short: An opening series against the Golden Knights would be a winnable series for the Sharks, but challenging nonetheless. 

But things could be different if the Sharks take first place in the Pacific division. If the playoffs started today, the top team in the Pacific would match up against the Wild in Round 1. Minnesota has gone 6-2-2 in their last 10 contests, including a 3-0 shutout of the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. The Sharks have taken the first two games of their season series with the Wild, outscoring Minnesota 8-3 in those games combined.

In addition to being a change of pace from the teams San Jose has squared off against in the playoffs in recent years, a series against Minnesota would definitely be interesting -- if not also one the Sharks could take control of.

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But things don’t stop with Minnesota. Should the Sharks take first place in the standings, the teams still in the hunt for a playoff berth shouldn’t be ignored. The Coyotes, who currently sit three points out of a wild-card spot, have gone 8-2-0 in their last 10, including a 2-0 shutout of the Flames that helped the Sharks make up ground in the standings. The Colorado Avalanche are only four points out of a wild-card spot, and while they just received news they’ll be without Gabriel Landeskog for about a month, this is the team that squeaked into the playoffs last season. The Edmonton Oilers are seven points out of a wild-card spot, but riding a winning streak that could potentially boost them into competition with Arizona, should Colorado falter.

With San Jose playing their next game on Saturday and Calgary not playing again until Sunday, the standings could shift within the next 48 hours. With just 15 games left in the season, it’s going to be a wild race to the finish to see who the Sharks will face off against in the first round of this year’s playoffs.

Justin Braun thankful controversial call went in Sharks' favor vs. Coyotes

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AP

Justin Braun thankful controversial call went in Sharks' favor vs. Coyotes

SAN JOSE -- It’s fair to say the Sharks’ 3-2 overtime win over the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday didn’t really pick up speed until both teams started scoring in the second period. But then play came screeching to a halt, as a potential tying goal could have changed the momentum of the entire game.

After San Jose scored two goals in less than a minute to take a 2-1 lead, the Desert Dogs mounted a counter attack and looked to have scored the tying goal. Arizona forward Richard Panik gained speed as he carried the puck up through the neutral zone, with Justin Braun on his heels trying to slow him down. Panik tried circling around the blue paint and appeared to collide with Sharks goaltender Martin Jones as the skipping puck trickled into the net. 

“I don’t know how it kept trickling in there,” Braun told the press after the game. “I thought it was going backwards and must have hit the foot or something.”

The goal was initially waived off, with the official saying the puck crossed the crease in an illegal fashion. Then, after a video review, the call was overturned and the tying goal counted. Then, the Sharks challenged the call and were successful in getting the goal overturned for good on account of goaltender interference.

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“Thankfully it was goaltender interference, (because) that was kind of a different play,” Braun admitted.

In addition to it appearing Panik had stopped Jones from being able to do his job and stop the puck, he also looked to have whacked Jones in the head in the process. As the goal was initially being waived off, the camera caught Jones grabbing his head. 

“Yeah, he hit (Jones) pretty good right in the head,” Braun said afterward, expressing concern for his teammate’s health. “He took a big hit. But he bounced back pretty good.”

The final determination had an immense effect on the outcome of the game. Arizona scored the tying goal in the third period as both squads -- who were playing their first game after their bye weeks -- began to look gassed.

But with the score still only tied, San Jose had the opportunity to win the contest in overtime. Had the second-period marker counted, Arizona might have gained momentum and won the final game of the Sharks-Coyotes season series.

Particularly with the Sharks looking rusty, the positive impact that second-period call had on San Jose cannot be overstated.

Sharks power through adversity, kick off stretch run with win over Coyotes

Sharks power through adversity, kick off stretch run with win over Coyotes

SAN JOSE -- The Sharks didn’t exactly travel along the easiest road en route to beating the Arizona Coyotes 3-2 in overtime Saturday night.

For starters, they were playing their first game after a long break -- a situation that sets up any team to be a little rusty. Then, they went up against a sturdy performance from Coyotes netminder Darcy Kuemper. To top it all off, the AHL Barracuda had played a matinee game just a couple of hours before, and the SAP Center ice wasn’t at its best.

“The game was difficult to play,” Sharks forward Logan Couture admitted. “Both teams coming off a long stretch without playing hockey. Throw in the ice because there was a game earlier today. By the end, I think both teams were exhausted, but it’s good to get the two points.”

Sure, Saturday’s game was looser than what San Jose wants to play at this point in the season. But the rust was shed midgame, and a strong second period helped set up a victory. That's definitely a positive sign for a team that wants to power through the last 30 games of the season and have a deep playoff run.

“It’s an entertaining game for fans because you’ve got breakaways and 2-on-1s and a lot of odd-man attacks that you normally don’t see this time of year,” Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said, chuckling a bit. “I think as we get back and going, everything will tighten up again.”

Defenseman Justin Braun agreed: “Coming off the break, you’re trying to find your game. But I thought for both teams it was good effort overall. I thought the ice was a little choppy after the game this afternoon, but I think both teams did a good job out there.”

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Both teams, in fact, weren't polished before Conor Garland scored the game-opening goal for Arizona. San Jose had the better-looking chances of the two teams, but a turnover in the Sharks' zone allowed the opposition to get on the board. They, however, chose to not let the mounting adversity get to them.

“The bench didn’t get down,” Couture said. “We stayed positive. I thought we were playing really well, given the circumstances and found a way to win.”

That’s the type of mentality the Sharks need to maintain moving through the last 29 games of the regular season. San Jose is just four points out of first place in the Pacific Division, with some crucial matchups coming up on its schedule, including the division-leading Calgary Flames this upcoming week. But the Sharks aren't yet focused on the standings, according to Braun.

“You can’t look at what other teams are doing," he said. "You have to take care of your business every night."

DeBoer echoed that same sentiment when asked what the message was to the team going forward.

“We really want to play some really good hockey here down the last 30 games,” he said. “We think large pieces of our game are in a good place, but there are some areas we want to clean up a little bit. The whole key to playoff hockey is making sure you’re playing well this time of year on. That’s our focus.”