The San Jose Sharks have a chance to be the second Western Conference team to clinch a berth in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs when they host the Washington Capitals Sat., March 22. The Eastern Conference Boston Bruins have already clinched and the St. Louis Blues have three chances to clinch earlier in the day.
The pictured keys to earning the points necessary to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs must be accompanied by help from the Eastern Conference Ottawa Senators. The magic number for the Sharks is three, meaning one or two points have to be earned to clinch plus the Dallas Stars (the first team outside the Western Conference playoff picture) must fail to earn one or two points, respectively.
St. Louis is two points ahead with two fewer games played, and simply needs to earn a point in Saturday's matinee game or have Dallas fail to earn two in the evening. Thus, the gap between them has to be unreachable for San Jose to also make the postseason in the day's final game.
Nevertheless, the Sharks would be the first team in the Pacific Division to clinch a berth. The division standings determine home-ice advantage in the first two rounds of the new Stanley Cup playoff format. They could widen their lead over the Anaheim Ducks to a full game and close to within a game of the Blues for the top seed in the Western Conference.
The Capitals are fighting just to make the playoffs at all. They sit a game out of the final Eastern Conference wild card berth. They are 11-8-3 against the Western Conference but just 13-16-6 on the road. They beat the Ducks Tuesday before losing in a shootout at the Los Angeles Kings Thursday.
Evgeni Kuznetsov has been added to their lineup, and they are a different team with Jaroslav Halak in net. Then again, their goalie was not the problem in their January shootout loss in Washington.
They could not score on Antti Niemi, who had 35 saves to one goal against and should be in net and in good form again Saturday. San Jose is the best home team in the NHL at 26-5-4 while going 21-7-3 against the Eastern Conference.
The Sharks have not lost head-to-head at home since 1993 and are hot of late, going 8-1-1 in March to finish their climb to the top of the Pacific Division standings. Even their struggling power play has shown signs of life, scoring in two straight games.
San Jose is better on faceoffs (52.8 to 49 percent), takeaways (7.7 to 6.8 per game), shots (34.9 to 29.9), shots allowed (27.8 to 33.5), blocks (15.8 to 14.5), penalty kill (84.5 to 81.4 percent), goals scored (2.94 to 2.78) and goals against (2.32 to 2.86). Washington has fewer giveaways (7.5 to 10.1), more hits (23.5 to 19.2) and a much better power play (23.9 to 16.1 percent).
Stay out of the box
Alex Ovechkin does a lot of his damage on the power play. One reason the San Jose Sharks have had success against the Washington Capitals is discipline.
Washington leads the NHL in times on the power play with 255, amassing the best goal margin with 61 goals to eight shorthanded scores allowed. The problem is that no team is on the penalty kill as infrequently as San Jose, which is thus the best team in the league at goal margin by giving up 29 and scoring eight.
Meanwhile, the Sharks have 254 power plays so their 22nd-ranked success rate of 16.1 has still produced a mediocre 41 goals. They have only given up four shorthanded goals, so only 10 teams have a better margin. Just five teams have been shorthanded more frequently than the Capitals, so look for their fifth-worst penalty kill goal differential (47 allowed and four scored) to come into play.
Not the same Capitals?
The Washington Capitals are not just a different team after the trade deadline because they believe they are. They added more skating talent and upgraded in net. That is not even going to get them to the Eastern Conference finals, but they are more likely to make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That could spell trouble for the San Jose Sharks. Jaroslav Halak struggled against them earlier this season with the rest of the St. Louis Blues (0-2-0, 3.94 goals-against average and .875 save percentage), but was a solid 4-3-0 with a .919 save percentage and 2.48 GAA previously in his career, including a couple wins in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
If a 1-0-1 record thus far in what some of the NHL calls "death valley" because of California's inhospitable stops is any indication, the Capitals are better than their record. If the Sharks are not ready to grind out goals and keep a bolstered opponent from keeping up, first place in the Pacific Division could slip away.
The Washington Capitals are actually a very deep team. They have 11 players that have at least eight goals and 13 with at least 14 assists.
The San Jose Sharks have 10 of each, and is unlikely to keep up in secondary scoring. However, they need to be able to roll four lines to keep the guests at bay.