There might be no team more dangerous than a desperate one. That might describe the Winnipeg Jets in their quest to make the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs as they visit the San Jose Sharks Thursday, March 27.
The Jets are nine points back of the final Western Conference wild card berth and have nine games to play. No matter what they do, if the Pacific Division's Phoenix Coyotes play over .500 hockey or the Central Division-rival Dallas Stars get 13 points in 10 games, the Stanley Cup hunt for Central Canada dies...or even if the Vancouver Canucks or Nashville Predators almost match their success.
That is why by now, fans have given up hope for the playoffs. The front office knows this team is not making it in. Even players and coaches have felt this pending doom.
It becomes real when they are literally one loss away. If they do not win every game, they have to rely on another team to play poorly.
It is in animal nature to fight the hardest when survival is on the line, and great competitors treat championship goals like they are truly do-or-die. Unfortunately for Winnipeg, that moment was probably before playing Dallas with a chance to close to within seven points at the expense of another team higher in the 2013-14 NHL season standings.
If reality has set in, things could be a lot easier for the Sharks. They are Stanley Cup contenders in the real world rather than the "it's not over 'til it's over" idealism of a competitor. A big step to winning it all is winning the Pacific Division and getting home-ice advantage until at least the Western Conference finals.
Two points would move them half a game ahead and one percentage point behind the 2013 Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks for the lead. The second-place team will have the toughest draw for any higher seed in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs—the Los Angeles Kings. Not only does that matchup increase the chance of losing in that first round, it takes its toll on efforts to win subsequent rounds.
That will be deadly in trying to make it through the Western Conference, where there are five of the seven teams with over 95 points in the 2013-14 NHL season standings. San Jose must approach its last eight regular season games like a playoff series against Anaheim, which hosts the Pacific Division rival in the 80th game of both teams' seasons.
The Sharks are the best home team in the NHL at 26-5-5 and 9-1-3 in March. The Jets are 15-17-3 on the road, 3-6-3 this month and 2-3-0 since journeyman Al Montoya has been thrust into the starting role in net.
San Jose literally leads Winnipeg in all major statistical categories: 2.93 goals on 34.9 shots vs. 2.68 goals on 30.9 shots per game, 2.30 on 27.7 vs. 2.84 on 30.3 allowed, 16.8 to 14.9 percent power play, 85.1 to 84.1 percent penalty kill, 9.0 penalty minutes vs. 12.9 and 53.6 to 46.7 percent on faceoffs. In just one more game played, the hosts have 46 more blocked shots and 100 more takeaways.
The Jets have 88 fewer giveaways and a whopping 661 more hits, but the latter category is too subjective from game-to-game to be a useful season statistic. That many more still means they do more hitting, but they also spend more time chasing the puck than possessing it.
Two more points might be imperative to the Sharks winning the Pacific Division with the Ducks winning a third in a row Wednesday in a stretch of nine games against teams almost certain to miss the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. There are three keys to making that happen...
Captain Joe Thornton summed up the difficulty of the race for supremacy in the Western Conference, noting in the official game preview (linked in the introduction paragraph) how the San Jose Sharks approach games: "You just try to get your compete level as high as you can. We're trying to fight for first."
If that does not get the compete level up, they are in big trouble—especially if Logan Couture remains out. They are still the more talented team, so if they are not out-fought they are likely to win.
One thing often a factor for determining how hard a team competes is who wins the battles in front of the net. In many of the recent games where the San Jose Sharks have struggled to score, they have gotten a lot of rubber on net but lacked the bodies screening goalies. That is why they have failed to score three goals in four of the last six games.
The Winnipeg Jets have guys that battle very well in front of the net on the attack. They have a solid blue line that will make that real estate tough to come by in their end. Beating San Jose in this battle can give them the one extra play needed to pull out a victory.
The San Jose Sharks are statistically the best faceoff team in the NHL at 53 percent and 281 more wins than losses. The Winnipeg Jets are third-worst with a 46.7 percent success rate and second-worst with 291 more lost than won.
The Sharks need to dominate here. In six of their last eight games that included seven teams that do not win half their draws, they only managed a two-win edge. Considering the home-ice advantage in the faceoff circle and the struggles there for the opposition, this needs to be like the game against the Washington Capitals (45-20) or at least the game against the Florida Panthers (46-34).
Ironically, those were two of the three games the Sharks lost in that stretch. Bad luck actually explains the shootout loss but the regulation loss to the Panthers showed why net-front presence was higher-rated since that was the only battle the victors really won.