The Colorado Avalanche have become hot enough to have a chance to claim the top spot in the Western Conference. They are the final visitor to the SAP Center during the 2013-14 NHL season when they take on the San Jose Sharks Friday, April 11.
Colorado is 8-0-1 in its last nine games, with multiple wins against the rest of the NHL elite. San Jose is 3-4-2, falling from the Pacific Division lead to the bottom half of the Western Conference for the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Sharks cannot catch the Avalanche no matter how the next two games transpire. The only team in reach is the Chicago Blackhawks, also with 107 points but holding a one-game edge in the first tiebreak with two games to go.
In other words, the only way San Jose hosts an extra game of any series after the first with the Los Angeles Kings is if Chicago wins two series as a lower seed or if the 2013-14 NHL season's Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks lose in the Stanley Cup's first round.
Either could happen, but neither is still more likely. Of course, the Sharks have to be more concerned with getting there.
That means surviving the Kings. Health could be a big factor in that, and CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz reported that Tomas Hertl was cleared to return Friday and will be eased into action before the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. Add Raffi Torres back to the mix and this a an entirely new team.
One thing that could derail that is a key injury right now, but Kurz also reported the Sharks may not rest most players (though Marc-Edouard Vlasic is going to sit) because McLellan wants them "to stay on their toes." He did acknowledge that he may manage minutes a little more, suggesting he is looking ahead to that first round.
Home-ice advantage will be big in making it past Los Angeles. The home team won all seven games in last year's Western Conference semifinals and all but one game in the 2013-14 NHL season series.
Moreover, San Jose is the best home team in the NHL since the 2008-09 season when Todd McLellan took over as head coach. From last season through the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs and 80 games thus far this season, his team has had the best home record in the Western Conference.
Colorado will provide a good test. The upstart team few had in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs before the season started is a true contender with an excellent goalie, a shot-blocking defense and speedy forwards.
Even though this game has greater meaning for the Avalanche—a team very different from the Kings—the Sharks need to approach this game as a chance to prepare for playoff competition. Once that is the approach, there are three keys to winning...
Possessions are key to the game of the San Jose Sharks, and they have a significant edge in the faceoff circle. They have won almost 300 more draws than they have lost on the 2013-14 NHL season, while the Colorado Avalanche have lost 45 more than they have won.
Starting with the puck is key to stopping the transition game of Colorado. Both teams are great at takeaways, but San Jose's propensity for giveaways could also be deadly—it is worse to win the faceoff and turn it over than to lose the faceoff to begin with.
The Sharks must win the overall battle for possessions and not lose the battle for turnovers by much to win this contest.
The eyes have it
The last time these teams played, the San Jose Sharks put a lot of rubber on net and even got to a lot of rebounds, leading to 49 shots. However, Semyon Varlamov saw almost every one of them and stopped all but two in a 3-2 Colorado Avalanche win.
If the Sharks do not figure out how to score through traffic, they will not beat Jonathan Quick. Now is the time to fine-tune that process.
Goalie-blue line partnership
When the San Jose Sharks get into trouble, it is usually from an inability to clear pucks. Not only do they need better goalie play than Antti Niemi gave them Wednesday, they need to coordinate the blue line and forwards with whomever is in net by first clearing pucks from the front of the net and then out of zone.
If the Colorado Avalanche can sustain pressure, their skating ability will be just as deadly in the offensive zone as it is in transition.