In today’s NHL, parity is abundant. Three point games help drive that parity, as teams are clustered together in the standings.
Even a six-game winning streak does not create much separation from opposing teams, but a six-game losing streak (all in regulation) can certainly send a team spiraling down in the standings.
At this time a year ago, the San Jose Sharks were in the middle of such a losing streak. That major skid saw them fail to pick up a single point in the standings during a six-game stretch from January 2nd through January 14th.
Prior to the streak, they were hanging around in the playoff picture, but afterwards the Sharks found themselves a mere 12th in the Western Conference.
Immediately afterward, the Sharks turned on the juice to the point where they were something like 27-6-4 in their final 37 games as they catapulted themselves all the way to a second-place finish in the Western Conference.
But despite the push and the second straight Conference Final appearance, the Sharks still fell short of their goal, losing in Round Three to the Canucks. And if you remember back to the day when San Jose cleaned out their lockers last season, you’d remember one consistent message.
Sharks GM Doug Wilson was steadfast in his criticism that his team’s playoff failure was caused in large part by the fact they had to play catch up for such a long stretch down the end of the regular season. He kept repeating about the date in January where his squad sat in 12th place.
Many in the organization agreed with Wilson’s take. Falling that low in the standings forced them to expend too much energy getting back into the race. It left them without enough gas in the tank come playoff time.
But fast-forward to this year, and January is a different story entirely. The Sharks are arguably the top team in the Western Conference when you factor in the games in hand. Yet through December, stories were being written that the Sharks were around the same point totals at the time as they were last December.
It was certainly a negative story line and one that was arguably unfair as it was January, not December where the season really took a downward turn last year.
Nowadays the Sharks are currently undefeated in 2012 as they take a four-game winning streak with them into Minnesota on Tuesday.
With a overall record of 23-11-4, through 38 games, the Sharks have 50 points and sit in third place in the conference. However, they have four games in hand on first place Vancouver (which would equate to eight points if all become victories) putting them at 58 points. Vancouver only has 55 points right now.
San Jose has been consistent this year. They have only lost three straight games in regulation one time this year back in early October. They have only lost two straight games in regulation two other times. The only other three game skid included back-to-back shootout/overtime losses.
The Sharks have had not a single four game losing streak of any kind, and just one real three game losing streak (all in regulation).
Meanwhile they own a five game winning streak and three-four game winning streaks. What does this mean? Well when the Sharks aren’t streaking in the good direction, they are finding ways to continue picking up points.
They have found a consistency even when they aren’t clicking on all cylinders.
If San Jose continues this consistent level of play, come late March, they won’t be in the same situation where they have to start Niemi nearly ever game down the stretch.
Players will get rest. No, Joe Thornton isn’t going to take a night off, but there certainly is a different exertion level when you are working your way up the standings rather than maintaining a lead. Just like there is a different exertion level up 5-2 in a game seven than down 5-2 in a game seven.
“We had a strong focus in training camp about how we wanted to start” commented Sharks forward Ryane Clowe. “We had a so-so start to the season but we’ve come on strong. It’s one thing to have games in hand but then you gotta win ‘em.”
If the Sharks can put those games in hand into the win column, it will certainly benefit down the stretch.
Sharks head coach Todd McLellan certainly didn’t want to make any comparisons from last January to this January.
“Every year we will have that phase. It’s inevitable. I have yet to see a perfect season. The Montreal Canadiens lost seven games one year. Our time, it varies,” added McLellan. “I remember the first year it being late in the season. Last year being right after Christmas. This year, you know we were in the crap probably a little bit earlier in December. Everybody goes through it. It’s how you stick together, how you come out of it. The quicker you can, the better off you are.”
This may not be a perfect season for the Sharks, and as McLellan notes, there has never been a perfect season in the NHL, but it has certainly been one darn near perfect season for the Sharks thus far.
That “early December crap” that McLellan referred to was a 1-3-2 stretch from Dec. 3 to Dec. 15, but in reality a 1-3-2 looks much, much better than 0-6-0.
The four points earned in that stretch were just as important as points picked up during winning streaks. They all count the same.
And for giggles, let’s say San Jose had gone 0-6 instead of the 1-3-2. Leaving everything the same, the Sharks would be in 11th place instead of third. Sound familiar? Last year’s 0-6 dropped them to 12th.
This year’s Sharks, thanks in large part to an improved defense corps, has been able to eek out points when not playing their best brand of hockey.
Continuing this form of consistency should allow them to have plenty left in the tank come playoff time and ergo give “Team Teal” their best shot at the ever elusive Stanley Cup.