The San Jose Sharks once seemed entrenched in the No. 2 spot for the Pacific Division title chase, but now after wins in six straight games -- combined with some recent struggles by the first-place Anaheim Ducks -- both first place in the Pacific and the top spot in the Western Conference are within reach.
The Sharks (45-17-7) currently stand tied with the Ducks atop the division standings with 97 points, but Anaheim has a game in hand. Also, San Jose is just four points behind the St. Louis Blues for the best record in the West, although the Blues also have a game in hand there.
Thus, the need to keep winning the winnable games, and tonight's home match against the Florida Panthers (25-35-8) qualifies as one of those contests. The Sharks just returned from a perfect, three-game road trip, and they've now earned points in eight straight games (7-0-1).
Goaltender Antti Niemi has been back on this month, posting five wins in stellar fashion: he's surrendered only eight goals in those five games, posting a .946 save percentage in the process. In comparison, his four February starts were ugly: ten goals allowed in four games with an .892 save mark, including an ugly start in Philadelphia where he was pulled in the early third period.
Meanwhile, the Sharks have started scoring again, too. They've scored 30 goals in this eight-game points streak, scoring four goals or more in six of the wins before squeaking a 1-0 win on Sunday against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Logan Couture scored shorthanded in the first period, and Niemi made 41 saves -- that's the kind of game the Sharks will need to win in the postseason to get to the Stanley Cup Finals.
As San Jose starts this next homestand against the Panthers, they'll need to keep scoring: Anaheim and the Washington Capitals come to town next, on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.
Win these three home games, and the Sharks could sitting atop the Pacific Division come the end of the week. San Jose has the best home record in the National Hockey League, with a 25-4-4 mark, so if the team doesn't come away with at least five points in these three home games, it may be seen as a disappointment -- considering how much is on the line here with just 13 games left in the regular season.
After the Caps game on Saturday, the Sharks have ten games left: at Calgary, at Edmonton, Winnipeg, at Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Nashville, at Anaheim, Colorado and at Phoenix. Amongst that group, Winnipeg, Nashville, Calgary and Edmonton are the four worst teams in the Western Conference right now.
Those are five very winnable games for San Jose. Given the Sharks' home-ice success, they should win at least seven of those last ten games.
But should, would, could, etc., don't mean anything unless they do -- and that starts again tonight against the Panthers.
Game time is 7:30 p.m.