Programming note: For all the day’s sports news, tune in to SportsNet Central tonight and every night at 6, 10:30 p.m. and midnight on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
Over the next several days leading up to the Sharks' next game on Feb. 27, we'll count down eight questions facing the team as it gets set to start the stretch run.
Question 7 - Can the Sharks catch Anaheim and win the Pacific Division?
No NHL team is more secure in its current position in the standings than the San Jose Sharks.
Entering the Olympic break, the Sharks trail the Anaheim Ducks by seven points for first place in the Pacific Division, with one game in hand. They also own a whopping 12-point cushion on third place Los Angeles, which is the team they would face if the playoffs started today.
[RELATED: NHL standings]
It’s highly unlikely the Kings will chase down the Sharks, as both teams have just 23 games remaining and only one head-to-head matchup.
But, can the Sharks catch the Ducks? It’s not impossible, and a number of factors will come into play.
The Sharks start the break with a three-game road trip, and after that, 12 of their final 20 games will be at SAP Center where they own a 22-4-3 record. The schedule isn’t overly difficult, either, with 13 of their final 23 games against teams not currently in playoff position.
The Ducks have 22 games left, 12 of which are at Honda Center. Of their final 22, 12 are against non-playoff teams.
Where the Ducks may have an advantage, though, is travel. The Sharks have two East Coast swings remaining including the aforementioned trip that begins in Philadelphia on Feb. 27, and another trek to Columbus and New York/Long Island in mid-March. Longer trips mean less practice time.
The bulk of Anaheim's travel is over. The Ducks will generally stay local for the rest of the season, as the farthest East they will go is Denver.
The Sharks could benefit from a reduced group that went to the Olympics in Sochi. Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Antti Niemi were the only four players chosen, and Niemi will probably not see any playing time for Finland as the third-stringer.
Older and younger Sharks players will welcome the rest. Joe Thornton and Dan Boyle struggled in the final few games before the break, and Boyle in particular hasn’t looked quite right since his head injury in October. Logan Couture will have had a seven-week break between games by the time he suits up again, recovering from a hand injury. Rookie Matt Nieto, who could get a chance to play a key role on the Thornton line, is also probably fine with taking a breather in the middle of his first NHL season.
Anaheim, on the other hand, has seven players in Sochi. Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Teemu Selanne, Jakob Silfverberg, Sami Vatanen, Cam Fowler and Jonas Hiller all represented their countries in the games, and won’t get the benefit of extra rest. That could be an advantage for the Sharks in the coming weeks.
According to the formula used on SportsClubStats.com, the Sharks currently have a 40 percent chance of finishing fourth in the Western Conference, where they are currently, and a combined 48 percent chance of ending up in third or fifth. The Ducks have an 80 percent chance of finishing as one of the top two seeds. In other words, math isn’t on the Sharks’ side.
Still, for argument’s sake, let’s say the Sharks win their game in hand in Philly on Feb. 27, and draw to within five points with 22 games to go. That’s not an insurmountable margin to overcome, by any means, especially considering there is no other team between the two.
There are a pair head-to-head matchups remaining, one in each building, on March 20 in San Jose and April 9 in Anaheim. That's also beneficial to San Jose, of course.
It can be done, and was already on the minds of some players immediately after the Sharks beat Columbus on Feb. 7 in their final game before the respite.
“We're happy with where we're at now, and we're going to try to catch Anaheim,” Tommy Wingels said.
Let the pursuit begin.