Programming note: Sharks-Oilers coverage starts with Pregame Live at 6 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet California
SAN JOSE – There are fewer than 30 games left in the regular season for the San Jose Sharks, and for the first time since 2010-11, there’s little doubt this late in the campaign that the Sharks will make it to the postseason tournament. Only an absolute and utter collapse would prevent them from appearing in the playoffs for the 10th straight season.
That becomes particularly evident when examining their remaining schedule. Of the 29 games left for the Sharks, 16 are against teams that would not be in the playoffs if they started today.
The Sharks have five combined games left against the worst two teams in the Western Conference, Calgary and Edmonton, including this week’s back-to-back. They will face some of the league’s mediocre Eastern Conference teams like Columbus and Philadelphia twice each, and nine games total remain against teams not named the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Metropolitan Division, easily the worst of the NHL’s four realigned divisions.
They have just one game each against the Blackhawks and Kings, two teams they have struggled with in recent years.
Captain Joe Thornton indicated the team isn’t looking at its favorable schedule that way, of course.
“In today’s NHL, there’s no free games, really,” Thornton said. “Every team is going to compete hard, and every team is working to try and win games and save jobs and get new contracts. Every game is so important, you just have to be mentally and physically prepared every night.”
What’s more immediate is that there are just six games left before the Olympic break. The final four of those will be at home, where San Jose is 19-3-3. Only Saturday’s game against Chicago is against a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
The Sharks have played well lately, winning seven of 10 games without Logan Couture, who is still out with a hand injury but could return after the current road trip. Todd McLellan’s job will be to maintain his team’s focus through Feb. 7, when the Sharks host Columbus in the final game before the respite.
“The issue that I’m sure a lot of teams will have is, let’s make sure we don’t go on the break early,” McLellan said. “Let’s make sure that we get to the finish line and stockpile as many points as possible. We’ve been good to this point. … We’re going to push hard, and we expect the players to respond, and then they can earn that time off.”
The Sharks have four players going to Sochi in Patrick Marleau, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Antti Niemi and Joe Pavelski. The rest of the team will have off from Feb. 8-19, when practice resumes in San Jose for the non-Olympians.
Until then, there is work to be done.
“You’d like to get to playing some good hockey before the break, knowing you’ll go into it feeling good about yourself,” Thornton said. “Hopefully, during that three weeks, you get healthy, recharged and refocused, and get ready for the second half.”
Tommy Wingels said: “Some guys are paying in Sochi, but for the majority of the team it’s welcomed rest. I think guys are looking forward to it, and they can really leave it all out there the next six games.”