In the new playoff format for the National Hockey League, winning your division may be at a higher premium than ever.
This is clear for the San Jose Sharks as they prepare to face the Anaheim Ducks tonight: if the Sharks win, they could be very close to perhaps winning the Pacific Division and avoiding a first-round playoff matchup against the Los Angeles Kings.
Lose tonight, and San Jose will get the worst possible opening matchup in those same Kings that won a second-round playoff series in seven games last spring over the Sharks.
San Jose has blown several chances already in their last ten games: the team has lost six of those contests, yet still find themselves with a golden chance tonight if they beat the Ducks on the road. Anaheim leads the Sharks by three points in the Pacific standings, but a regulation win by San Jose gets the Sharks to just one point down with two to play.
The Sharks can only be shaking their heads right now, however: they've lost several winnable games lately, including a few at home that were somewhat inexcusable.
A 3-0 loss to Nashville at home on Saturday, when San Jose outshot the visitors 35-24, was just embarrassing. The 4-3 loss to Central Division cellar-dweller Winnipeg on March 27, also at home, was ridiculous.
A shootout loss on the road to the Pacific Division's sixth-place Calgary Flames on March 24 and a puzzling home loss to the Atlantic Division's seventh-place Florida Panthers on March 18 look very painful now.
Throw in the fact that the worst team in the NHL, the Buffalo Sabres with 51 points this year, swept the Sharks, and you see easily that San Jose could have been waltzing with ease toward the top record in the Western Conference this year.
But again, this is the Sharks, and they often come up short when they can least afford to, don't they? That's the San Jose way, sadly.
(For what it's worth, five of the six losses noted above came with Antti Niemi in net -- Alex Stalock posted a .960 save percentage in the shootout loss in Calgary.)
So, one more time, the Sharks can do something important tonight in Anaheim; whether or not they will? That's another question altogether.
If they don't, though, the playoffs are going to be an extra-special grind from the first drop of the puck.