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The San Jose Sharks have completed their cheap-and-easy schedule (a.k.a. the Eastern Conference portion). So, for that matter, have the Anaheim Ducks.
In other words, the only schedule truth left to be told is whether Anaheim can make the best of its two games in hand and easier opponents. If so, the Sharks end up with the far less appealing spectre of an opening series with Los Angeles than with easier opponents like Minnesota, Phoenix or Dallas.
And yes, it matters greatly, because the winner between the Sharks and Kings will almost surely be sufficiently beaten up and beaten down by the time the second round begins.
This is one of the unintended gifts of the NHL playoff format, in which the second and third place teams in each division are matched no matter their relative merits or shortcomings. The league has decided that familiarity breeds contempt, and the Kings and Sharks are quite contemptuous of each other.
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In other words, the Sharks would like to avoid the Kings so as not to have to expend the extra energy and power required to beat the Kings. Los Angeles’ alternative to San Jose is Anaheim, which is far less a bargain.
To do so, though, the Sharks need Anaheim to fail massively down the stretch, because the Ducks’ schedule is totally Western Conference but almost entirely of Eastern Conference quality. Anaheim gained 43 points in 32 games from the East this year (San Jose did even better, gaining 46), but its real benefit came from the 56 points it got in 39 games against the West, the bulk of them against the upper half of the conference.
We know this because of Anaheim’s remaining games:
At Los Angeles
In other words, Anaheim’s next eight games are against the hopelessly marooned bottom half of the West, against which the Ducks are already 10-2 this year.
San Jose’s remaining 11 games are somewhat more daunting:
Four doomed teams, four playoff teams and one bubble team. In other words, the Sharks have fewer games and more difficult ones at the same time.
In fact, for those of you who worry about such things, the Sharks may not only be unable to hold off Anaheim, but may also be passed down the stretch by Chicago and even Colorado. The Blackhawks still have six more games against the East among their 10, although two, at Boston and Pittsburgh, can be considered daunting.
[RELATED: NHL standings]
Colorado takes a bigger stretch, as the Avalanche are seven points behind San Jose. On the other hand, they have two games in hand and two with the Sharks, so while they play seven of their final 11 away from home, they are not yet doomed because they have the third-best road record in the league (behind St. Louis and the New York Rangers).
So the up-side here for you annoying optimists is that the Sharks have their 10th consecutive playoff berth, and they remain atop their division and second in the conference behind the Blues (who are likely going to run away from the field with their own remaining schedule).
On the other hand for you annoying pessimists, the Sharks have work to do to avoid the one thing they wish most not to do come April 16 -- endure seven games of barely disguised warfare with Los Angeles. Regional rivalry series are swell and all that, don’t get us wrong, but they are always better for the survivor if they happen later in the playoff process.