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The Sharks and Ducks are going down to the wire. Thanks to San Jose’s post-Olympic surge, and a slight downturn (at least by their standards) by the Ducks, the teams are tied atop the Pacific Division on Monday morning with 97 points.
Anaheim is still in first, having played one fewer game. Furthermore, the Ducks own the first tiebreaker if the teams finish deadlocked in points, by virtue of eight more regulation/overtime wins.
[RELATED: NHL standings]
Which team will prevail and grab home ice for at least the first two rounds? Here are five things to ponder as the race heats up with less than four weeks to go in the regular season.
1 – Head-to-head matchups
The Sharks’ run of 12 straight games against the Eastern Conference will finally come to an end after Tuesday's game with Florida, and they will host Anaheim on Thursday in what will surely be the biggest game of the season to this point. San Jose visits Anaheim on April 9, which is the third-to-last game of the season for both teams.
Thursday’s game will be the first meeting between the California rivals since a home-and-home on Dec. 29 – 31. Each team defended its home ice, with the Sharks winning 3-1 in the first game and Anaheim claiming a 6-3 edge on New Year’s Eve.
The Sharks won the first game of the season series at home on Nov. 30, 4-3 in a shootout, after surrendering a 3-1 third period lead.
2 – The schedule
Neither the Sharks nor Ducks have a particularly difficult slate the rest of the way.
San Jose has 11 games left against teams other than the Ducks, and eight of those are against clubs not currently in playoff position. In fact, they will battle some of the league’s bottom-dwellers, including last place Edmonton twice, Calgary, Florida, Nashville and Winnipeg.
Unfortunately for the Sharks, Anaheim’s schedule might be even lighter, as the Ducks will play nine straight games against current non-playoff teams between its meetings with San Jose. Anaheim has three games remaining with Edmonton, two with sinking Vancouver, and also plays the Flames, Panthers, Predators and Jets.
3 – Home sweet home
The Sharks and Ducks have been two of the NHL’s best teams at home. San Jose’s 25-4-4 mark at SAP Center is the best in the league in terms of winning percentage, while Anaheim is close behind at 24-6-4.
This could be where San Jose has a slight advantage in the race, as eight of the Sharks’ final 13 games are in the Bay Area. Anaheim is evenly split, with seven games at Honda Center and seven on the road.
Neither team has to travel particularly far, either, as the Sharks completed their final trek to the East Coast on Sunday in New York.
4 – Potential playoff opponents
Not only are the Sharks and Ducks essentially locked in to the number one and two seeds in the Pacific Division, Los Angeles is comfortably in third. Anyone who has seen recent Sharks-Kings games, or the Ducks-Kings battle last week, realizes the importance of winning the division and avoiding the dangerous 2012 champs in the first round.
If the playoffs were to start today, the winner of the Pacific Division would face the better of the two Wild Card teams – in this case, it would be Anaheim vs. Minnesota. The red-hot St. Louis Blues, who lead the Central by a fairly comfortable six points, would play Dallas.
The Phoenix Coyotes are still very much in the race, tied with Dallas at 75 points. Vancouver (72 points) and Winnipeg (71 points) are still alive, but should probably be considered long shots, if only based on the fact that neither has been playing very well.
A first round matchup against Minnesota, Dallas or Phoenix would be much more preferable than playing the Kings, who, even if they succumb, will take a lot out of their opponent for ensuing rounds.
5 – They told me there would be no math
According to SportsClubStats.com, the Ducks are still the favorites to capture the division. The website gives them a combined 69 percent chance of finishing either tops in the Conference or first in the Pacific, while the Sharks have a 68 percent chance of finishing second in the division.
The odds get better for the Sharks when each game is considered a 50-50 toss up, rather than using weighted predictions. Then, the Sharks have a 38 percent chance of finishing either first or second in the Western Conference, ahead of Anaheim.
As for the President’s Trophy, the Sharks are still in that discussion, too. St. Louis is the most likely club to gain home ice throughout the playoffs at 58.4 percent, but Anaheim (18.8 percent) and San Jose (5.1 percent) are still alive.