All the Sharks needed was one point to clinch their 10th-straight playoff appearance, and they did that by taking Monday night’s matchup with the Calgary Flames to overtime before eventually losing 2-1 in the shootout.
The game itself wasn’t anything pretty, and while the result was suitable for clinching, they’ll need to do better to stay near the top of the pack in the West. The Sharks are +43 at home and dead-even on the road in goal differential. Translation: they’re a much better team in the friendly confines of the SAP Center, and so we look ahead expectantly as we remember that they lost every road game they played against the Los Angeles Kings last season, including one fateful Game 7.
Monday night’s matchup offered very little in the way of talking points. This wasn’t a playoff preview and, while both teams traded some quality scoring chances, it was more a showcase of the Sharks continued penalty killing prowess (killed both of the power plays they faced, 5th in the league at 86.0%) and Alex Stalock’s progress as Antti Niemi’s 1A (26 saves).
So instead of really nitpicking the minutiae of San Jose’s 73rd game, let’s focus on where the Sharks are as they officially gear up for the playoffs:
— The Sharks put Raffi Torres back on injured reserve with Brad Stuart’s activation, according to Kevin Kurz. They’ve played most of the season without Torres and they’ve done exceedingly well, but his absence is still troublesome. Without him, San Jose’s bottom-six features some solid players, and that’s about it. Adam Burish and Mike Brown are sorry attempts to recreate the toughness that Torres brings.
— Todd McLellan will have to be a wizard with the his beloved line alteration, assuming Torres never gets back to 100% and Tomas Hertl never gets back … period. Hertl’s presence allowed McLellan to spread out Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski across the top three lines without losing true complementary pieces. Remember when the top line was Burns-Thornton-Hertl? Those were the days, but without Hertl, McLellan will have tough decisions to make with where he plays Pavelski. The Burns-Thornton-Pavelski line was strong, but the third line really benefits from him playing center.
— James Sheppard has been playing very well for the Sharks lately, and if he finally realizes at least a bit of his potential, he could be a very dangerous weapon for the bottom half of the Sharks forward depth. Check out this GIF:
This play was prettier because of Matt Nieto’s speed cutting across to the slot, but Sheppard found himself in the right place at the right time and he capitalized on it.
— If there’s anything that makes me nervous, it’s the Sharks’ defense. Doug Wilson’s defense-heavy draft last year makes some sense now: plain and simple, Dan Boyle isn’t what he used to be and he’ll be gone after this season is up. Scott Hannan and Brad Stuart are collectively 69 years old. What the Sharks do have — spectacular scoring depth — is exactly what they lack on the blue line.
— That being said, Jason Demers has been earning increased minutes, and he deserves it. Demers has been spectacular in all phases of the game. He has probably the sneakiest 31 points I’ve ever seen, and that kind of play should carry the Sharks in the postseason.
— I’m burying the lede here, but the Sharks lost Logan Couture tonight after he blocked a hard shot in the first period. This stretch of schedule, with 14 games in March, is absolutely brutal. It’s not getting easier tomorrow night, when the Sharks travel to Edmonton to take on the Oilers. Todd McLellan said he’s fine, but also that he wasn’t sure if he’d play tomorrow. They’ll probably be without Couture in that contest.
So what’s the verdict? This is the best Sharks squad we’ve seen since their Presidents’ Trophy club in 2008-09. Go ahead, feign optimism: if this team’s current construction stays healthy, and if they get Torres (and even Hertl) back, the Stanley Cup Final is a real possibility. For now, the 101-point-having Sharks need to continue chasing the 103-point-having Blues. That home-ice advantage will be crucial.