The break for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics is over as the 2013-14 NHL schedule resumes Tuesday, Feb. 25. The trade deadline next week could change the landscape, but some of that can even be predicted.
The picture of the San Jose Sharks during the post-Sochi Olympics stretch run is coming into focus. The pictured list of things that need to happen for this perennial Stanley Cup-contending talent to finally win it all is short. It begins for them again Thursday, Feb. 27.
They are clearly going to finish no worse (and probably no better) than second in the Pacific Division. The Los Angeles Kings are six games behind in the 2013-14 NHL season standings with only 23 games to go. Even if they won the one head-to-head matchup in regulation, they would need to win almost 25 percent more frequently than San Jose through a tougher schedule.
Unfortunately, the Sharks are also seven points down with only game in hand vs. the Anaheim Ducks. That gap would not be made up even with regulation wins in both games head-to-head and another in the extra game.
In other words, they need the defending Pacific Division champions to falter—probably by more than two points because it is unlikely all three above games would be won, much less without an overtime. A stumble is made less likely by the fact that the Ducks have no more games in the Eastern Time Zone, play just as many games against opponents not currently qualifying for the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs and have one of the two head-to-head games at home where they have the best record in the 2013-14 NHL season.
The Sharks are younger and almost healthy, with less ice time spent at the Sochi Olympics. However, the break helps the older players more, and it is a lot to expect anyone to win one more game in every six than a really good team.
Finishing in second means facing the third-place Pacific Division rival in the first round. The Kings are not only six games behind the Sharks, but four points up on the Phoenix Coyotes and five up on the Vancouver Canucks for third place.
The Canucks have played one more game, putting them three games back. The Coyotes have a game in hand but nowhere near the talent level.
Several Kings (Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter and especially Jonathan Quick) seem to have found their game in the Sochi Olympics and this team has proven it can turn it on when it matters. This winner of the last Stanley Cup championship to come in a full season could make one trade deadline move for a scorer and become as good as anyone in the NHL.
Though there has been considerably less shopping in recent years, Vancouver is likely to be a deadline buyer. They have talent on that roster and are the same team that was within a game of having an all-time season just three years ago. They are not especially old, but the peak in their rear-view mirror gives the feel the window is closing and they are likely to make a push.
Still, they are fighting just to get into the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. They are not about to make up three games against a team like Los Angeles that can lean to its blue line and goalie strengths, leading to more points.
Meanwhile, the Ducks are likely to face a wild card team in the first round. One would have to believe they can handle a flawed team and await the Sharks in the second round. After that, it seems pretty clear the Chicago Blackhawks or St. Louis Blues await in the Western Conference finals.
San Jose would rather face St. Louis, which lost all three head-to-head games this season after Maxim Lapierre ran Dan Boyle into the boards. Still, the last game in Chicago was a win and that team has will have been through a grind to even reach the finals after winning it all with a condensed season in 2013 and playing so many at the Sochi Olympics plus a full season and tough 2014 Stanley Cup playoff road to even play for the Campbell Trophy.
That is a lot to see with so much time to go, but the road to the Stanley Cup finals is being laid out before San Jose. Besides the obvious needs like being less decimated with injuries (Bracken Kearns was sent down to Worcester of the AHL to make room for returning players Tuesday) than thus far, most of the things that need to happen for this team to win the Western Conference are likely occurrences.
One would have to think that winner would fare well in the Stanley Cup finals against any Eastern Conference team. This might be the last, best chance for these Sharks to finally bring home the Holy Grail of Hockey.
It is vital that the San Jose Sharks have something to play for through the 80th game of the season—their last trip to visit the Anaheim Ducks. Ideally, they still have something to play for until the last game—the second of back-to-back games at the Phoenix Coyotes so they can rest some players.
More than two games without anything at stake dulls a team's edge. There is a good chance San Jose will be in reach of Anaheim until at least that trip there. Todd McLellan has said he also values home-ice advantage in the Western Conference finals, and three teams in the Central Division have better point percentages than his club.
That is likely to make even more games matter. This team is not going to have a chance to let its foot off the gas.
Finish off teams
The San Jose Sharks will end the 2013-14 NHL season with more travel miles than any other team. They have 23 games over the final 45 days of the season. It is likely they must get through two tough Pacific Division opponents and the best that the Central Division and Eastern Conference have to offer to win the Stanley Cup.
Some players had some time off due to injury during the season, but even they cannot overcome that tough road without a few days off. The Sharks must finish off teams in fewer than seven games in two of the four series, preferably with one shorter than six. They may not have the gas left to win the Stanley Cup if the playoffs go to 25 games.
Eastern Conference battles
The Western Conference has shown itself to be superior to the Eastern Conference. However, that will work against the better teams in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.
While a couple elite Eastern Conference teams face shorter series in the early rounds—in addition to lighter travel and a less physical style—the best in the west will be embroiled in tough series. Without the Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins facing a tough series before they battle hard for the Prince of Wales Trophy, the Sharks would have a tough time having enough left to beat them after surviving the Western Conference.
Fortunately, there are some potential rivalry series for each that have a tendency to go longer. Both teams have also shown difficulty in finishing teams off in the Stanley Cup playoffs.