The Sharks have traveled the easy route to the playoffs many times before, racking up points faster than LeBron James against the Cavaliers then coasting into the postseason, but they've never reached the Stanley Cup Final.
The Sharks are traveling a tougher path this season, one filled with uncertainty in a wide open Western Conference. If they survive, which is likely but still no sure bet, the Sharks will enter the playoffs a much more battle-tested team after living on the edge for so long.
The Sharks entered Thursday night’s game against Washington in a five-way tie for fourth place in the West with 68 points. After beating the Capitals 3-2, the Sharks are tied for fourth with Nashville with 70 points. But they’re just two points ahead of Anaheim, Dallas, Los Angeles and Calgary, five ahead of Minnesota and six ahead of Chicago.
“Everyone realizes the standings and how tight the West is, and every game’s got a little playoff atmosphere,” said Sharks center Joe Pavelski, who scored the game’s first goal. “You’re trying to get there and you think you make a little ground, but you really don’t make any.”
“We' got to find a way to qualify for that tournament at the end of the year,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “Every inch of ice, every play around the net’s very important to us right now. Defensively we’re keeping teams to two and under a lot of nights, and that’s allowing us an opportunity to win.”
The Sharks went 5-2 on their recent road trip opened a two-game homestand by beating Washington. They’ve won 11 off their past 14 games, and seven of those wins have been by one goal. Playing tight games is becoming a way of life for the Sharks, and that experience could be a huge help in the postseason – if they get there.
“It’s so close, and it’s hard to play when you’re under pressure, but we’ve experienced that a lot this year,” McLellan said. “I’ve been told more than 100 times that it’s going to help us later on, but you never like to be in that situation. I thought we had some poise, some composure, as we did in Nashville the other night. We addressed it after the collapse, if you will, in Florida.”
Thursday night’s game was scoreless until late in the first period when the Sharks turned a John Carlson turnover into a two-on-one rush and a short-handed goal by Pavelski. Patrick Marleau corralled the loose puck near center ice, headed down the left wing then zipped a pass in the middle to Pavelski. Pavelski hammered the puck into the upper right corner of the goal, beating Michel Neuvirth at 18:49.
The Sharks barely had time to celebrate before Washington answered with a power-play goal by Alexander Ovechkin 22 seconds later. Ovechkin took a pass in the high slot from Carlson walked in uncontested and unloaded a shot past Antti Niemi.
After a scoreless second, the Sharks took a 2-1 lead at 4:27 in the third on Ryan Clowe’s goal from point blank range. Clowe parked himself in front of the net, and was in perfect position to capitalize when Kyle Wellwood fired a shot from the left faceoff circle. He knocked the puck down then knocked it past Neuvirth.
Then with just 9:11 left to play, the Sharks made it 3-1 on one of the strangest goals Dany Heatley will ever score. Dan Boyle fired a shot from the high slot that ping-ponged off Pavelski, Washington’s David Steckel, San Jose’s Joe Thornton and finally Heatley on the power play.
“You watch the goals being scored,” McLellan said. “Even 5 on 5, they’re simple goals. You don’t’ see a lot of pretty tic-tac-toe plays. They’re as ugly as ugly can be, and that one was ugly. Get people at the net and throw a little floater in and get lucky, and maybe we need more of that.”
Washington cut the lead to 3-2 with 1:55 remaining on Nicklas Backstrom’s goal, but the Sharks’ and Niemi withstood the Capitals’ final push for another one-goal win.
“We’ve been in that position it seems for the last -- forever,” Boyle said. “Obviously we’ve done a better job lately than we did the first half of the season. It’s pretty tight hockey. It would be nice to get one of those games where we can play with a bigger lead, but it is what it is. It was a huge two points for us. It’s a good win”
Of course in the West, every win will be huge from here on out.