Programming note: Sharks-Ducks coverage starts Thursday at 7 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live, only on Comcast SportsNet California
SAN JOSE -- Moments after the Sharks beat Columbus on Feb. 7 in their final game before the Olympics, Tommy Wingels remarked that the club wanted to catch Anaheim when it returned from the break.
Wingels and his teammates will have that opportunity on Thursday night, when the Ducks visit SAP Center. The rivals are tied with 97 points apiece, as San Jose has closed the seven-point gap that separated them when the season resumed. The Ducks still can claim first place as they've played one fewer game.
“Anaheim got out to a big lead, but we put ourselves in a good position to make a run here at the homestretch. Tonight is the start of that,” Wingels said. “Tonight is super-important, but so is every other game after that. When you play head-to-head in this situation, it’s even more important. No doubt this is a big game in our minds.”
The Sharks haven’t been in first place in the division since Dec. 7, but Anaheim reeled off 10 wins in a row, and 18 in 19 overall beginning in early December (their lone loss over that stretch was a 3-1 defeat at SAP Center on Dec. 29).
[RELATED: NHL standings]
The Ducks held a lead of as many as 13 points in the division as recently as Jan 16. Since then, the Sharks are 16-6-1, while the Ducks are just 9-9-2.
Was there ever a thought back then that the gap was too large to close?
Wingels said: “You can’t have that thought. Yeah, you’re aware of the points and how hard it is to come back from a deficit like that, but we’ve played some good hockey. Throughout ups-and-downs in the season, we’ve put ourselves in a good position right now, and a position that you want to be in at this point in the season. We’re happy with where we’re at, and tonight’s a big game.”
The Sharks will be playing a Western Conference opponent for the first time since Feb. 5, when they hosted and beat Dallas. They thrived during a stretch of 12 straight against the Eastern Conference going 9-2-1 over that span.
That will change for the last 12 games of the regular season, as a matchup with Washington on Saturday will be the final game against the East. Including tonight, seven of the Sharks’ final dozen games are against Pacific Division foes, including a visit to Honda Center on April 9.
“There certainly is a way that the Western Conference plays that’s a little different than the East, but I wouldn’t say there’s an adjustment,” Dan Boyle said. “We always have to play the way we need to play.”
Wingels said: “You’re forced to play a bit of a different way when you play against some of the teams in the West, because it’s a heavier style. There’s less room out there. Ice is taken away. You’ve got to really work for your ice.”
The Sharks have won two of three in the season series, claiming four points to Anaheim’s three. No matter what happens tonight, the race for the division title is likely going to come down to the wire.
But, it starts on Thursday.
“Our games are always pretty much similar," Patrick Marleau said. "They’re battles, and always hard fought games. You know what type of game it’s going to be."