The San Jose Sharks saw their chances of winning the Pacific Division take a major hit Sat., Mar. 29. After losing in regulation to the Colorado Avalanche, the Anaheim Ducks beat the Calgary Flames in regulation.
Even with the ridiculous way the NHL tracks standings, the Ducks have recaptured first place. In reality, they had it long before the pictured stars clinched a 2014 Stanley Cup playoff berth for the Avalanche.
San Jose came into the day with a lower point percentage and half a game down. However, in the NHL—a league that averages 1.1 points per team per game—being one point up with three more games played (after the loss but before the Anaheim win) still means being in first place.
Now the Sharks have almost no chance of dethroning the 2013 Pacific Division champions. They play four of the last six games against teams jockeying for position in the Stanley Cup playoffs while the Ducks play five of eight remaining games against teams that are in the bottom five of the Western Conference.
If Anaheim can just play two points over .500 against that soft schedule, San Jose could win out and still finish in second place in the Pacific Division. That leaves the playoff-tested, physically-draining Los Angeles Kings to get through in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Sharks still have something to play for, as they are only half a game up on the Avalanche and 1.5 games up on the Chicago Blackhawks for home-ice advantage in a potential Western Conference finals matchup. Getting there will now almost certainly mean going through both Southern California rivals.
It is thus of no consolation that San Jose dominated for 49:26. After getting one extra goal in an even game to that point, Colorado lost six more faceoffs, had three more giveaways and the same number of takeaways, was out-shot 40-14 and out-attempted by an unbelievable 73-21 the rest of the game. Naturally, the home team had 13 more hits for the game but won on the strength of 25 blocked shots and 47 saves by Semyon Varlamov.
The Sharks got only 19 saves, and the NHL's third-best shot-blocking team had just three Saturday. Alex Stalock failed to get down quickly enough for the first sharp-angle, one-timer shot by Paul Stastny on a feed from Gabriel Landeskog that gave Nathan MacKinnon a secondary assist and the Avalanche a lead just 93 seconds into the game.
Worse than Stalock's whiffed save was the matador defense. Stastny skated right by would-be defender Joe Pavelski. Landeskog was free beneath the goal line and MacKinnon was able to get the puck in the zone.
Pavelski worked to make up for his mistake on the next power play, redirecting a Joe Thornton centering pass (Brent Burns got the secondary assist) to tie the game 94 seconds later. The next time Colorado was shorthanded, Nick Holden cleared the puck out of his zone and Dan Boyle whiffed on gloving the puck; it fell to Cody McLeod, who took advantage of Stalock's premature guess and regained the lead.
Despite the game swinging the other way, the Avlanche struck next on the power play in the seventh minute of the second period. Former Shark Jamie McGinn got the puck from Erik Johnson and fired on net. The shot rebounded off the back boards and the aggressive Stalock was too far out of position to recover before Mitchell ended his team's long man-advantage scoring drought.
Two minutes later, Boyle had a chance to make amends as Pavelski had. He pinched down to put home a one-timer feed from James Sheppard that made the game tight, but even San Jose's fierce net-front battles and puck retrieval could not help get anything more past Varlamov.
The win put Colorado firmly into second place in the Central Division, one regulation/overtime win from mathematically ensuring home-ice advantage over Chicago in their first-round playoff matchup. That could be critical for a young team—even one that won four of five head-to-head games during the 2013-14 NHL season—against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
For the Sharks, the loss was a reminder that showing up late is not something that can be done in the Western Conference. Without the Pacific Division title, one must wonder of they will be healthy enough to win a Stanley Cup after going through two series in Southern California.