In the 1998-99 season, realignment put the Central Time Zone Dallas Stars in the Pacific Division. Another realignment prior to the 2013-14 NHL season has them more appropriately in the Central Division, but a 15-year rivalry with the San Jose Sharks is still not quenched as of their scheduled matchup Wednesday, February 5.
The three pictured keys to victory do not include the main factors of intensity and talent. The history of this matchup shows there has been plenty of both.
One of the two teams won the Pacific Division in every year until 2007. After one season with the Anaheim Ducks, the Sharks reclaimed the crown and did not let go until 2012 when the Phoenix Coyotes won the franchise's first division title dating back to their days as the first incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets.
Adding fuel to the fire, the Stars won the 2008 Western Conference semifinals between the teams. They took the first three games, lost the next two but then won a quadruple-overtime home game to move on.
It was their third Stanley Cup playoff series win over their rivals without a loss, with the first coming before they were both in the Pacific Division. San Jose's recent success has only sometimes translated head-to-head.
Last season, Dallas came into the HP Pavilion (now the SAP Center) far enough from qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs that talent was shipped out at the trade deadline. It earned a shootout win over a team that had won seven straight since moving Brent Burns to forward and having Joe Pavelski center the third line.
The preview of their win in the first game in the 2013-14 NHL season examines how the Sharks were better at every position, but they still lost. Thus, no one should overlook the Stars just because they are seven games back in the Western Conference standings.
In fact, the personnel comparison is closer at forward now with Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl added to the injured list and only Martin Havlat returning from that October roster. (Eriah Hayes was reassigned to the Worcester Sharks of the AHL Tuesday, suggesting Tyler Kennedy may be ready to go.)
That should ensure San Jose does not overlook this game. Looking ahead is the only explanation for the terrible final 40 minutes at home Monday against the Philadelphia Flyers—a team with a lower point percentage than Dallas despite being handed that game.
If the Sharks want to catch the Anaheim Ducks for the Pacific Division title, they cannot afford to lose home games against teams like the Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets (Friday) that are 15 points behind them in the standings. Two wins would just about lock up home-ice advantage in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs if the Los Angeles Kings lose their only game left before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
That game is against Columbus Thursday and could help San Jose face a worn-down team. Los Angeles is ice cold (1-8-1 in the last 10) and it is hardly far-fetched to think the teams could enter the break with a 13-point difference in the Pacific Division standings and each having just 23 games to go.
The Sharks should be healthy by the time the break is over: Hertl is the only player likely to still be hurt beyond then unless one of the four players representing their nations in Sochi get injured.
They will also have a favorable schedule: San Jose will still have one more home game left than road game and one more game against the 14 teams currently outside of the Stanley Cup playoff picture than the other 15 teams inside it. Only five remaining games are against teams with a better record, only two of them are on the road and only five road games remain against any teams projected to make the postseason.
If the Sharks can win the last two home games before the Olympic break, they should exceed 110 points—a figure that a Kings team that loses Thursday could only reach with a perfect 23-game run. When an opponent's chance to catch up in the division is nearing an end is a good time for them to prove they have killer instinct.
At the same time, Dallas could jump into position for a wild card berth in the Western Conference with a win. For a franchise that has not been back to the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2009, that urgency should make this an entertaining game.
The Dallas Stars are a team that skates well. Hesitation, giveaways, getting out of position and anything less than hard skating are things they will exploit.
If the San Jose Sharks move pucks out of their zone quickly first and then into the Dallas zone quickly right after that, their superior skill will prevail. The more bad habits they exhibit, the more the uncertain the outcome of this game.
Special teams success
The San Jose Sharks rely more on their special teams than their rankings—10th on the penalty kill at 83.1 percent and 18th on the power play at 17.9 percent—might indicate.
For one thing, they have scored four shorthanded goals and given up just two. More importantly, these stats come with very few opportunities to score them and many to give them up.
Every team in the NHL has been shorthanded over 20 more times than San Jose. Only the Washington Capitals have been on the power play more often (209-207). Being 14 goals in the black on special teams is second to the 23 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and represents half the team's goal differential for the 2013-14 NHL season.
The Dallas Stars are the 12th least-penalized team in the NHL but have the 19th-ranked penalty kill at 80.7 percent. They are a threat to score shorthanded (five so far), but still give up two more than they score on special teams. They draw enough penalties (199 power plays ranks sixth in the NHL) but rank just 23rd in converting (15.6 percent).
The Sharks should get at least as many power plays and convert on one more that could be the difference against the Stars.
The San Jose Sharks are not going to score a lot of goals with their forwards depleted and a puck-moving defenseman out. They have to be true to their game.
Avoiding being out of position was already mentioned, but the Sharks are also a team known for two things they have not shown in two of their last three losses. They were out-performed by their opponents in blocking shots and in goalie play, and those two elements are even more fundamental to the team's success than winning faceoffs.