The San Jose Sharks will play their fifth of 12 consecutive games against the Eastern Conference when they host the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday, March 4. There are three pictured things to watch for that should send the fans home happy.
The Sharks are returning from a 2-1-0 road trip that started after the break for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Twelve of their 20 remaining games are at home where they are the best team in the NHL since the end of the latest lockout.
This will be the last game before the NHL trade deadline for both teams, and the Hurricanes are likely to be sellers. They sit in seventh place in the weakest division in the league, four games back of the Detroit Red Wings for the final spot in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. They have also lost five in a row and have just seven wins in 23 games against the Western Conference.
That is in great contrast to San Jose, which is 15-6-2 against the Eastern Conference and perhaps a strong enough contender to not even be deadline buyers. As close to healthy as at any point during the 2013-14 NHL season, this team has everything needed to win a franchise-first Stanley Cup.
Then again, the Sharks are known for playing down to the level of their competition. Their record of 39-17-6 includes no wins and just two points in six games against the Sabres, Hurricanes, New York Islanders and Nashville Predators—all among the seven worst teams in the NHL.
This is a game San Jose has to win to have any chance of getting home-ice advantage beyond the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. Failure to capture two points in games against teams likely to miss the postseason altogether will leave the Anaheim Ducks impossible to catch for the regular season Pacific Division crown and top seed. The gap between the teams is already seven points with only 20 games remaining.
The Sharks have three more road games left in the Eastern Conference to none for their rivals. However, they possess two more home games and there are two games head-to-head, with each hosting one. The Ducks can be caught without counting on them to drop off in play, but every point counts.
Even if Anaheim ends up being out of reach, San Jose can win a potential second-round series with the Pacific Division rival without home-ice advantage. What is more important for a team that flew more miles in the 2013-14 NHL season than any other is getting it in the Western Conference finals.
The two teams most likely to be waiting that round are the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues. Despite no game left against either, both are within reach at just one and two games ahead of the Sharks in the NHL standings, respectively.
That winner, the Ducks and the Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Kings are probably stops on the road (in reverse order) through the Western Conference. That will be tough, so San Jose needs to take advantage of its opportunities against teams not headed for the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Just who will be in net and how that person plays is up in the air for both teams. Antti Niemi has been disappointing since October, but Alex Stalock is playing extremely well and may get a chance at the starting role for the San Jose Sharks.
Meanwhile, the Carolina Hurricanes may trade 2006 Stanley Cup winner Cam Ward, who allowed five goals Sunday night in Anaheim. He is one of three goalies to appear in 21 or 22 games for them this season, making it anyone's guess who will play.
However, Carolina has allowed 19 goals in the last five games—all with three or more. Only six teams have allowed fewer goals in the 2013-14 NHL season than San Jose, which has allowed two or fewer goals in 12 of its last 18 games.
The San Jose Sharks were struggling on the power play before the break for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics (one goal in 27 opportunities) mostly because of missing Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl. They have scored in two of the three games since the former returned to action and should regain the status of one of the best power plays in the NHL.
Their penalty kill has also succeeded in 15 of its last 16 chances dating back to before the break. They rank higher than the Carolina Hurricanes in both sides of the man-advantage and are less prone to taking penalties.
The Sharks should get at least one more opportunity and bag at least one more goal on special teams.
The biggest boost for the San Jose Sharks are the additions before the NHL trade deadline, even if they did not come that route.
Getting Logan Couture back results in having more than one dangerous scoring line. The young star has three goals since returning.
Raffi Torres also has three goals, but likely will have more of his contribution come intangibly most nights. He will help a team play with intensity and urgency that should ensure wins against teams like the Carolina Hurricanes.