When the NHL playoff races came down to the wire last season, much was made of the fact that California produced more playoff teams than Canada did. In fact, it was a clean sweep for the Golden State. All three California-based teams – the San Jose Sharks, the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings – qualified, as the No. 2, 4 and 7 seeds respectively.
Meanwhile, north of the border, the old ‘Woe Canada’ headline got a serious workout.
Sure the Vancouver Canucks won the President’s Trophy going away as the NHL’s top team, but the Edmonton Oilers bookended them by bringing up the rear for the second consecutive year. The Calgary Flames were in their usual close-but-no-cigar mode (10th in the conference, three points out) and in the East, the Montreal Canadiens snuck in as the sixth seed, but the Toronto Maple Leafs (10th) and the Ottawa Senators (13th) missed completely. And just for scorekeeping purposes, the soon-to-be Winnipeg Jets, then still the Atlanta Thrashers, were right in between at No. 12.
So fast forward to the 2012 stretch drive and you’ll see that whatever has been ailing Canada’s teams continues to trouble, and maybe it’s afflicted the Californians as well. The race – CAN vs. CAL – is coming right down to the wire, with only Vancouver and the Ottawa Senators in the top eight, while the Kings are the only one of the three California teams currently in the top eight; and that’s just by a whisker.
This is how close the West is: At one point on Thursday, three different teams held down top spot in the Pacific Division – the Dallas Stars at the start of the day, the Phoenix Coyotes for about an hour after a regulation win over the Colorado Avalanche and then, at the end of the night, Los Angeles, by virtue of a 1-0 shootout win over the visiting St. Louis Blues. With Jonathan Quick earning the shutout, the Kings have now won six games in a row and 10 of their past 13 – and all that gives them in a chance in a conference where six teams are separated by three points. The most puzzling of the bunch: San Jose. Despite a 2-1 victory over the Boston Bruins (a sweet victory for Joe Thornton, the ex-Bruins’ star), the Sharks remain 10th in the West and in danger of finishing as the year’s most disappointing team, ahead of even the free-falling Toronto Maple Leafs and the lottery candidates from Montreal.
What happened to San Jose? The Sharks were a 105-point team a year ago, won two rounds, qualified for the conference championship for a second consecutive year and then ultimately lost to Vancouver, in part because Thornton, their top centre, was injured and could hardly play in the third round because of a separated shoulder.
The Sharks were so convinced of their championship potential that they worked even harder to tweak the lineup in the hopes of leapfrogging the Canucks this season. GM Doug Wilson made two separate trades with the Minnesota Wild. In one, he brought in defenceman Brent Burns to add scoring from the blueline. In the other, he added Martin Havlat to replace Dany Heatley, thinking the chemistry change would revitalize Havlat and the team.
But Havlat got off to a slow start, missed more than two months with a torn hamstring, and since his return he has been one of the better Sharks’ players. Burns has been okay too. After scoring 17 goals and 46 points for the Wild last year, he had 10 goals and 35 points through 72 games for the Sharks – playing about 22 and a half minutes as opposed to the 25 he played a year ago. Surprisingly, Thornton is actually having a better statistical year this year than last, with 69 points in 74 games after scoring only 70 in 80 a year ago. Logan Couture is up too, but Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and especially Ryan Clowe have seen their numbers drop; and no secondary scoring has emerged to take the pressure off the big boys. Suddenly, it looks as if every step the Sharks have taken to get closer to playoff success has actually moved them half-a-step back.
They looked listless in dropping back-to-back games to the Kings and Ducks earlier this week, and about the only good news is that they finish with back-to-back games against the Stars and the Kings, which means that if they can stitch together one good week at the end of the season, they can still catch a playoff spot.
In the larger scheme of things, however, they are approaching an organizational crossroads – likely too good a team to miss the playoffs, which they’ve made seven years in a row and in 12 of the past 13 years. For that matter, if they do make them, they automatically become the sort of dangerous nothing-to-lose wild card, waiting in the lower-echelon weeds. But if they do fall short, and if the stumbles and false starts of October to March are a harbinger of things to come, then changes – from top to bottom - will almost certainly be in the offing.