The Sharks are three points back with three games to go. Even winning head-to-head in regulation Wednesday and wins on back-to-back games Friday and Saturday would require the Ducks to play .500 hockey in their final two games to keep the 2013 Pacific Division champions from repeating.
San Jose only has itself to blame for falling short. Getting even one more point each against the Nashville Predators (0-3-0), Carolina Hurricanes (0-2-0) and Buffalo Sabres (0-1-1)—three teams among the worst 10 in the NHL—would have doubled the chance of winning the Stanley Cup, even if the latest odds offered by outlets like Bovada still have the team the fifth-most likely winner.
Anaheim's two remaining games are Saturday and Sunday. First is a trip across town to play the Los Angeles Kings—a team that already has nothing to play for but a possible home-ice advantage against the Minnesota Wild.
Moreover, that only comes up if the Pacific Division winner has the best record in the Western Conference. Otherwise the teams could only meet in the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, when home-ice advantage goes to the higher seed rather than the team with the better record.
Even that might not even be up in the air for the Kings by Saturday. If it is, the Ducks host the Colorado Avalanche that will probably only be playing for home-ice advantage in a potential matchup with the Sharks, which also could not happen unless both teams reach the Western Conference finals.
If San Jose is still in the hunt for the Pacific Division, Anaheim will need that home win more than Colorado needs points. Thus, Los Angeles is almost certain to be waiting in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs—the first of the four predicted opponents that would be in the way, detailed below...
Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings might be the most complete team in the NHL outside of the Boston Bruins. Adding a needed scoring-line forward to the top defensive team in the world might be just what was needed, and there are only three contenders to have already won a Stanley Cup in recent years.
There will be two things going for the San Jose Sharks in this series.
For one, they will have home-ice advantage. That has been huge for the Sharks in general over the past two seasons, and they are the best home team in the NHL since Todd McLellan took over behind the bench. The home team also won all of the 2013 Western Conference semifinals series.
Another will be that the Kings will not have had anything to play for in an entire week. That could allow them to rest but the loss of competitive edge can take a game or two to recapture.
All of that adds up to a better-than-even chance of advancing, but there is no way the chance is even 60 percent. Most likely, it will take seven games to make it happen.
The Anaheim Ducks will probably play the Minnesota Wild in the first round. That will be a tough series that may take the aging repeat Pacific Division champions seven games to win, but that should be the end result given the greater experience and skating depth.
Even in net, Anaheim has the advantage in that first-round matchup. Those aging veterans also provide a cause to play for—one last Stanley Cup.
The Wild is also not as physical or exhausting an opponent as the Los Angeles Kings, sparing those veterans from being more worn-down. The Ducks will carry inspiration and home-ice advantage into their series against the San Jose Sharks.
However, the Ducks are not as good a team. If the Sharks are even reasonably healthy, they will have the best third line in the NHL. They are better in their own end, more disciplined and have a better coaching staff.
More than that, another second-round loss would reflect more poorly on this team that has not even won the Western Conference. Anaheim may be desperate to win one more Stanley Cup for Teemu Selanne in particular, but he is already a champion and Hall of Fame player.
Thus, San Jose may have over a 60 percent chance of winning this series. There is even a reasonable chance it goes fewer than seven games.
St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues were already the best team in the Central Division before upgrading in net and on their checking lines at the trade deadline. They have dominated their rivals in the 2013-14 NHL season, have amazing depth and may have the best defensive skaters in the game.
Ken Hitchcock knows how to win a Stanley Cup (or at least have referees that want to go home hand him one) and Ryan Miller is desperate for his. Add that they are likely to only have to beat one true contender to get to the Western Conference finals and they are almost as likely a foe as everyone else combined.
They may live to regret Maxim Lapierre's hit on Dan Boyle. The San Jose Sharks went from struggling against the Blues to dominating them after seeing the veteran motionless on the ice.
The Blues have the better offensive blue line, but any defensive advantage they may have over the Sharks is negligible. Even though Antti Niemi is struggling a little more than Miller right now, he has actually won a Stanley Cup.
Chances are, St. Louis will not be that much more rested when the Western Conference finals comes along. San Jose may even be able to counter it with superior depth, especially if Tomas Hertl has returned.
This is a series the Sharks would be the underdog in, but is in reality about 50 percent likely to win—perhaps even in fewer than seven games considering the dominance of the Blues almost from start-to-finish in all three wins this season.
The Boston Bruins are the only team in the NHL with all the pieces—great goaltending behind a smothering defense and potent scoring, plus their recent history of Stanley Cup playoff success. They are almost as likely to emerge from the weak Eastern Conference as everyone else in the field combined.
For that reason, they should also be fresher come the Stanley Cup finals. They did go that deep in 2013 and could wear down, but more than likely they will get at least one short series and may not face any that go seven games.
By contrast, the San Jose Sharks had twice the travel in the 2013-14 NHL season and would have to emerge from three brutal Western Conference series against elite teams. Moreover, they could not beat the Bruins in either game this season, scoring just one goal and earning no points in their two head-to-head games, though the first was less than one second from going into overtime.
San Jose lost those games because Boston is better. Overcoming that would be hard for a team without the travel disadvantage, much less the greater playoff grind.
The Sharks do have more on the line, but still have barely over a one in three chance of emerging from a series like this victorious. Doing the math for each round leaves their odds at a Stanley Cup championship about half of what Bovada has them.