SAN JOSE – It’s getting to be that time of year.
Now that the second half of the NHL season is officially underway, the importance of divisional matchups against teams in direct competition with one another for playoff spots will carry extra weight. That includes the two road games for the Sharks this week, as they visit Calgary and Vancouver.
The Sharks (27-17-7, 61 points) have a slim two-point advantage on Calgary (28-20-3, 59 points) after 51 games by each. They own a four-point cushion on Vancouver (27-18-3, 57 points), but the Canucks have three games in hand.
Win both, and the Sharks will strengthen their hold on an 11th straight postseason appearance. Lose both, and they’re right back on the bubble again.
“They are big games,” Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. “If you lose both, both of those teams will be ahead of you. You want to get as many points as you can, especially against teams that are chasing you.”
James Sheppard said: “We’ve still got a ton of games left and everyone is so close. … It’s already getting kind of heated up. Kind of a cliché, but the ‘four-point game’ is something that’s going to be flying around here pretty soon.”
It begins with the Flames at the Saddledome on Wednesday. Calgary recently claimed a 4-3 overtime win over the Sharks on Jan. 17 at SAP Center, and has won two of the three games in the season series.
One of the biggest pleasant surprises in the NHL, the hard-working Flames are not going away, and have won seven of their last nine. They beat the Jets at home on Monday, 5-2.
“They have a strong identity of a hard-working team,” Todd McLellan said. “They like to stretch the game out a little bit. Their goaltenders give them the opportunity to win. They seem to be a very good third period team. They’re able to play and roll four lines, and they get a tremendous amount of offense from their blue line.”
The Sharks will be playing the second of a back-to-back and third game in four nights on Wednesday at Rogers Arena. Vancouver hosts Winnipeg on Tuesday, but will have that extra day to rest that San Jose will not get to enjoy.
Still, the energy stores should be relatively full for the Sharks, who just completed a seven-game homestand that included the All-Star break. The Sharks haven’t played in a back-to-back situation since Jan. 5-6.
“We’re playing on good ice surfaces, and in Canada, so guys will have a lot of energy,” Vlasic said. “There’s a lot of energy in this locker room.”
Sheppard said: “It might be easier to just focus for that 48 or 36 hour timeframe. You don’t have time to think and reflect, it’s just like jumping right in as opposed to putting your toes in.”
The road trip will be a brief one, as the Sharks will return to San Jose to play four of their next five at SAP Center beginning with the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday. Overall, 12 of the next 16 will be at home beginning with that one.
For McLellan, that only ups the ante on the current portion of the schedule, as 10 of the final 13 will be on the road, including a late East Coast swing.
“We have to understand that’s a pretty grueling schedule at the back end, so if we’re going to have success and build a little cushion, now is the time to begin,” he said.