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.