Sharks all of sudden looking like Stanley Cup contenders

Mar 15, 2016 3:03 AM

With all the talk in the Pacific Division about the Anaheim Ducks and “my” Kings, people are missing the rise in the remaining segment of the California triangle: the San Jose Sharks.

When the Ducks’ incredible 18-1-1 run ended last week (they went 0-2-1, as we told you they would), the Sharks have kept close to Anaheim and are also challenging for the division crown.

The nation received an exclusive look at the Sharks last week against New Jersey, when they were the lone game in either the Pacific or Mountain time zones.

In goal (not for the season, but over the past two months), the tandem of Martin Jones (the former Kings backup) and James Reimer (just acquired from Toronto) are arguably the best in hockey.

Jones’ numbers may not lead the league, yet are quite sound (34-18-4, 2.28 gaa, .918 save %,) with five shutouts to rank second behind Chicago’s Corey Crawford (7). Meanwhile, Reimer has made the cross-country adjustment and has won three of his last four starts.

The consistent scoring of Joe Thornton has been a key, matching Joe Pavelski with 66 points. Thornton’s streak included a point in 27 consecutive victories, including a goal and an assist in the Sharks’ weekend win over Washington.

The last time Thornton failed to score in a win came Nov. 22 in Columbus. Thornton and Pavelski also rank in the Top 10 in Plus-Minus; the only other team with two players that high in the category is the Kings (Toffoli and Kopitar).

Plus, there is no pressure on the Sharks; they are all-but-mathematically finishing no worse than third in the division, thus are guaranteed a playoff berth while playing 10 of their final 14 at home (half against non-playoff teams).

And they don’t have to play Buffalo anymore.

Anaheim’s major problem is its schedule. Following three home games this week, they close with 8-of-12 on the road, including a five-game trip to central eastern Canada, then close with three on the road, including a make-up game in Washington the night after the original season-capper in Denver.

This week’s puzzle: Did the Tampa Bay Lightning attempt to manipulate the NHL by intentionally dropping a home-and-home series to the Philadelphia Flyers?

For the naysayers, sure the Flyers are gaining momentum, first physically with a young, growing roster, then emotionally when Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin, now listed as out for the remainder of the regular season, after – talk about a “bump” in the night – breaking his wrist last Friday on a seemingly innocent box-out along the boards.

Philadelphia has been inching toward catching either the Penguins or Detroit for one of the two Eastern Conference wild card berths since the calendar year began. This was especially true when veteran Vinnie Lecavalier announced plans to retire at the season’s conclusion, so he was dealt to “my” L.A. Kings and the youngsters are more than making up for his absence in a win-win trade.

And Tampa Bay, which believed the Red Wings did the same thing to them a year ago – losing to key teams in order to match up with the Bolts in the opening round of the 2015 playoffs; if true, it almost worked; the series lasted the full seven games – would love nothing more than to see the Pens or Wings not challenge for the Stanley Cup and miss the postseason.

Because of the losses to the Flyers, Tampa Bay dropped to third place in the Atlantic Division behind Florida and first place Boston.

Meanwhile, the prospects for the Penguins were severely hampered when Evgeni Malkin dropped his stick behind the Columbus goal and skated for the locker room. Malkin ranks second on the club in scoring (27-31-58 in 57 games) and is the true key to Pittsburgh’s engine despite the league’s continuing attempts to promote Sidney Crosby as the star.

Let’s face it. Crosby was a rising star, but is plateauing. He might have been one of the dozen top skaters in the game, but he draws so much attention. The Kid is wearing down unless someone else can rise to fill Malkin’s boots.

The same thing happened recently in Los Angeles with Anze Kopitar, who is fast being considered the best two-way center in hockey.

While Kopitar’s defensive prowess and puck possession skills are rarely questioned, he only made major gains in scoring when the Kings’ second line – known as That 70s Group in center Jeff Carter (No. 77), and wingers Tyler Toffoli (73) and Tanner Pearson (70) – started producing.

An opponent’s checking line can only be efficient by covering one line at a time. That makes the defensive-oriented Kings difficult to defeat, even with the absence of winger Marian Gaborik due to a knee injury.

Since the trade deadline was passed, the Matt Cullen line seems to be Pittsburgh’s lone hope to get additional scoring. Cullen, an 18-year veteran, did score 25 goals once, but it was for Carolina a decade ago. Thus, the plan to see the Pens missing Lord Stanley’s party.

Contact Nick at [email protected].