The San Jose Sharks are ready to host the third-best team in the Eastern Conference Sat., March 8. The question is whether the Montreal Canadiens are ready for their fourth game through the Pacific Division.
Potential fatigue is just one of the five pictured story lines for this game. None of them are as significant as the way the teams are trending, their health or where the game is being played.
Regarding the latter, San Jose is the best home team over the last two seasons and 23-4-4 in the 2013-14 NHL season. Montreal has a shootout win over the Anaheim Ducks sandwiched between regulation losses to the Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings in the previous three games through the Pacific Division.
The Sharks are 16-6-3 against the Eastern Conference and 3-1-1 since the 2013-14 NHL season resumed after the break for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. They are as healthy as they have been all season, missing only Brad Stuart and Tomas Hertl. It has resulted in a spike in scoring—18 goals in those five games.
Montreal is without gold-medalist Carey Price, Brandon Prust, Michael Bournival and San Jose product Josh Gorges. Travis Moen and Douglas Murray will make a return to the Shark Tank, though the story line of returning players will not affect the outcome of this game.
Overall, the Canadiens are still a respectable 17-13-2 on the road and an acceptable 13-11-1 against the generally superior Western Conference. Playing road games against the top four teams in the Pacific Division has a way of deflating teams from the Eastern Time Zone. They are still 3-2-1 post-Sochi Olympics, and both teams had just started winning a couple games before the break.
Montreal is not going to catch the Boston Bruins for first place in the Atlantic Division and is solidly in the picture for the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, three games ahead of the first non-qualifying team. However, the arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs are just a game back for home-ice advantage in their likely first-round matchup.
The Sharks are a little more locked in. They are only slightly more likely than their guests to catch the first place team in their Pacific Division and need only finish above .500 the rest of the way to prevent getting caught for third. Their fight is for home-ice advantage against Central Division teams for a potential Western Conference finals.
The St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks all have better point percentages than San Jose, but the latter two are only half a game ahead. That should be enough motivation to beat a tired team that is nevertheless good enough to ensure its host's focus.