Sharks clinch, but home ice still available
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SAN JOSE – The sense of relief for officially clinching a playoff spot was evident in the locker room after the Sharks’ thrilling come from behind win over the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night at HP Pavilion.

But another opportunity still looms. The Sharks can clinch the fourth seed and home ice advantage in the first round with wins in their final two games, on Wednesday in Phoenix and Saturday in Los Angeles.

The Sharks wrapped up their home schedule with a 3-2 win on a pair of late goals from Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, an early power play goal from Raffi Torres, and 24 saves by Antti Niemi. They finished with a remarkable 17-2-5 mark at HP Pavilion, and if you need any further proof that the team values playing in front of its own fans, here’s what Pavelski had to say immediately following what might have been the most exciting finish to any win the Sharks have secured here this season.

“It’s one of those things you’re at home and the crowd is building and building, and you’re just waiting for it to blow,” Pavelski said. “It finally does, and it was an awesome atmosphere out there. It’s a good feeling, and rewarding for a lot of guys in the room.”

How did it feel to Couture?

“Awesome. As soon as that final horn sounded and we got the two points and knew that we were going to the playoffs – big smiles,” he said.

After the win, Sharks head coach Todd McLellan made it known to his club without delay that the fifth place Sharks can still catch fourth place Los Angeles. The Kings lost in regulation to the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday, so San Jose controls its own destiny when it comes to catching Los Angeles.

The playoff spot is assured, but there’s no reason to let up with just two games left in the shortened season was the message.

“There’s a sense of relief, but it can’t be a sense of relaxation,” McLellan said. “When we came in, we immediately looked at what happened tonight around the league, and there’s still a chance for home ice. That would be a nice thing to have.”

The Sharks flew immediately to Phoenix after the game, and will face a rested Coyotes team that is playing out the slate.

“We expect a battle tomorrow night, and it’s going to be tough with back-to-backs and three [games] in four [nights], but we’re just going to see what we’re made of,” Couture said.

For a long time, it looked like a win against the Stars wasn’t going to come, thanks mainly to goaltender Kari Lehtonen. San Jose spent much more time in its offensive end than the Stars during even strength play, but trailed 2-1 thanks to a two-man advantage goal by Dallas’ Loui Eriksson early in the second period.

The Sharks poured it on in the second period, particularly, outshooting Dallas 11-4 but getting thwarted by Lehtonen on every opportunity. All the Sharks could manage until the two late goals was a power play marker by Torres at 12:53 of the first period on a pass from Scott Gomez, after a superb entry into the offensive zone by Matt Irwin and Marty Havlat.

“It felt like we had a lot of momentum going throughout the game,” Pavelski said.

Pavelski tied the game after McLellan moved him from third line center to the wing on the Thornton-Brent Burns line. His deflection of a Brad Stuart shot at 14:23 of the third period made it 2-2, and Couture deposited the game-winner from Patrick Marleau 30 seconds later to send the sellout crowd into a frenzy.

“Patty made a great look to me back door. It felt good getting it upstairs there,” said Couture, who scored his team-leading 20th. “Basically, it was a full game of frustration turned into happiness.”

It’s been a whirlwind of a season for San Jose, which started the season with seven straight wins, went on a brutal offensive cold streak for nearly two months, and then won another seven games in a row from late March to early April. The Sharks are now 12-3-1 in their last 16 games, and regardless of if they secure home ice, will at least have a chance to make some postseason noise.

“It’s a shortened season and who knows what’s going on, but you’ve just got to get in,” Thornton said. “We’re in, and we’ve got two games to keep getting better, but it’s a great feeling.”

Couture said: “It’s been a weird year. Our main goal from day one was to get into the playoffs, and we’ve done that now. That’s all that matters right now going forward.”