As the Sharks prepare for the stretch run and the calendar turns to February, here are five questions to ponder about the Pacific Division leaders.
Is the Pacific Division race in the bag?
Maybe not in the bag, but it sure seems like the Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings are the only two teams with a chance to capture that automatic high seed in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The division as a whole has taken a step backwards this season, as Dallas, Phoenix and Anaheim are all but out of the race for first place. The Kings, meanwhile, are the worst team in the league when it comes to goal scoring (2.16 per game), although a solid defense corps and goaltender Jonathan Quick help to make up for their lack of firepower. Its the Sharks division to lose, as San Jose still leads it with several games on hand with the Kings. They would be wise to wrap it up before the final two games of the season though, when the Sharks and Kings face off in a home-and-home series to conclude the regular season. Theres still a distinct possibility those two games will determine the Pacific Division championship.
Do the Sharks need to upgrade at forward?
Yes. As they stand right now, the Sharks' depth up front cant compare to fellow Western Conference powers like Vancouver, Chicago and Detroit. The third liners have had their moments, and Jamie McGinns 10 goals are a pleasant surprise, but players like Torrey Mitchell and Michal Handzus have been inconsistent. Injuries to forwards Marty Havlat and Ryane Clowe exposed San Joses offense, which struggled mightily with two goals or less in six of the eight games before the All-Star break. Whether or not the Sharks can make a move to upgrade the position will be determined in the next couple of weeks leading up to the February 27 trade deadline, but you have to believe Doug Wilson is seeking help.
How will the schedule affect the Sharks?
San Jose arguably has the toughest schedule of any team in the league from now until the end of the regular season. February includes a 16-day, nine-game road trip, while March has no less than 17 games on the schedule a franchise high for any month in team history. The Sharks wont be able to rely on goaltender Antti Niemi this time around, either, as Todd McLellan has remarked that Niemi may have been a bit tired when the playoffs began last April. Fortunately, he has Thomas Greiss at his disposal, and Greiss has been outstanding as the backup goaltender. Hell have to keep up his strong play, too, as McLellan is likely to give him at least six-to-eight starts during what is a grueling couple of months.
Will Havlat and Burns have better second halves?
Brent Burns, yes; Havlat...tough to say. The two big additions this offseason havent exactly performed up to their potential, leading many to question the trades with Minnesota over the summer. Still, Burns appeared to be getting more and more comfortable headed into the All-Star break, and was showing some of his flash on offensive by jumping into the zone to generate scoring chances. His defensive play has been very good for most of the year, but he can do more than 17 points in 47 games. As for Havlat, a hamstring injury will keep him sidelined until March. That will give him time to get back his skating legs as the team prepares for the playoffs, but the Sharks will simply need more out of him than they got in his first 26 games while wearing a teal uniform (2g, 13a). If they dont, and the team makes an early playoff exit, it will be safe to say that the Havlat acquisition was a bust.
Will the power play improve?
As well as the Sharks have played five-on-five this season, the power play was dismal in the two months leading into the All-Star break. With so much talent at forward and on the points, its difficult to determine why, although the team could probably be accused of trying to be too fancy at times. That includes Joe Thornton, who has thrived with a man advantage in his career but whose numbers are way down in that category. The power play runs through Thornton, and its a good sign that the Sharks captain has a power play assist in two of his last three games. If the Sharks are going to make any noise in the playoffs, the power play absolutely has to produce more than it has.