Just 15 games ago, the San Jose Sharks were five games back in the Pacific Division. Now the Anaheim Ducks made the trek up the California coast to defend a lead that is merely half a game Thursday, March 20.
Pictured are five reasons the title will go to the Sharks, and it starts with this game. There are many reasons there will be a playoff-like atmosphere with playoff-like statistics.
No matter what both teams claim, in their hearts they know only the Pacific Division winner has a real chance at the 2014 Stanley Cup.
The second-place team is almost certain to play the Los Angeles Kings in the first round. That "other" California team recently turned its game around and is the only one to even get within six wins of a Stanley Cup title in the last six seasons, winning it in the last full NHL season.
It will be hard enough for San Jose or Anaheim to merely beat the Kings in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. Since either will have home-ice advantage and both are good home teams, they have reason to feel confident advancing but would be more of a toss-up to advance.
Morever, Los Angeles plays a physical game that will take too much out of their Pacific Division rival to make beating the other in the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs likely. Even that winner could be worn-down against a tough Central Division team for the Western Conference finals.
That is why both teams will treat this as a must-win game. Technically, the Sharks take over the Pacific Division lead with any win. However, the Ducks will maintain the better point percentage by merely taking the game to overtime, and they are certain to win the first tiebreak of regulation and overtime wins.
Whichever wins in whatever manner will be in the Pacific Division driver's seat.
San Jose is hotter and gets even better on paper as it becomes healthier against mediocre competition. Both teams have six home games left after this contest, but Anaheim still sits pretty with any win here because it hosts the remaining game between the teams and faces even more teams at the bottom of the standings.
Raffi Torres is now out indefinitely, per CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz. Brad Stuart is close to returning for the Sharks, but Tomas Hertl is not even doing full-speed skating yet.