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SAN JOSE – To the coaching staff and the players in the dressing room, reaching the midway point of the regular season doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot, and game 41 is more of an arbitrary number than anything.
“We kind of live day-to-day,” coach Todd McLellan said on Friday.
Still, it’s a good time as any to evaluate the Sharks, as the club makes it way through its 22nd season in the National Hockey League.
Fortunately for them, the positives outweigh the negatives. At 26-9-6 (58 points), the Sharks remain among the top teams in the Western Conference, and are still within striking distance of the Pacific Division-leading Anaheim Ducks (63 points). Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both pending unrestricted free agents, are having outstanding seasons that rival some of the best they’ve had during impressive and potentially Hall of Fame careers.
At home, the Sharks are 15-1-3, and visiting teams are routinely outmatched at the SAP Center. Rising stars like Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have shown no signs of regressing, defensemen Justin Braun and Matt Irwin have become established regulars in the lineup, and rookies Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto, despite Hertl’s potentially being lost for the season, have shown promise.
Joe Pavelski continues to be, well, Joe Pavelski. And Brent Burns is proving that he can be one of the NHL’s preeminent power forwards when he’s on his game, which is more often than not.
The head coach has a right to be generally pleased.
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“Our record is strong. When you think about where we are and what we’re on pace for, it is a very good season to this point when you look at that,” McLellan said. “When you look at our play, I’ve liked our play, for most of it.”
Thornton said: “I think we’ve been pretty consistent. I think we’ve competed hard through 41 games, and put ourselves in a good position for the last 41.”
It hasn’t been painless, of course. The Sharks endured a five-game losing streak in late October/early November, and recently went 1-4-1 from Dec. 5 – 14.
Their middling road record is the most glaring of the negatives, as they’ve lost as many games as they’ve won (11-8-3).
“We’ve taken care of business at home, which is what you always want to do. Our road record, we would like to get better there,” Dan Boyle said. “But, we’re giving ourselves here in the second half [a chance] to make a run at a playoff position, which is everybody’s goal.”
Special teams play has also been erratic. The Sharks are in the middle of the pack when it comes to the power play (18.8 percent, 11th in the league) and the penalty kill (82.4 percent, 12th).
The power play is just 12 for its last 79 (15.2 percent), although it does have five goals in the last five games.
“Special teams,” said Marc-Edourad Vlasic, when asked what can improve. “It makes a difference in a game, that’s huge.”
Finally – and this can be good or bad, depending on your perspective – the Sharks have the NHL’s best first-period goal differential, outscoring the opposition by 29 goals over the first 20 minutes. They’ve had a 2-0 lead in 17 of their 41 games, going 14-1-2 over that span.
From the second period on, however, they have just a +1 differential. Part of that can be attributed to playing a more defensive style when protecting a lead, but the Sharks have still had trouble at times putting teams away and hammering home that final nail in the coffin.
“It’s the consistencies within the game that concern me a little bit,” McLellan said. “We’d like to narrow the mistakes and the momentum swings down a little bit.”
Perhaps a better time to evaluate the Sharks will come in the second week of February, when the league shuts down for the Olympic break. After they return in at the end of the month, the Sharks could have reinforcements on the way, in the form of a healthy Raffi Torres and Adam Burish.
The real playoff push will start then.
“Everybody knows we’re halfway there, and have  games until we get a little bit of a break,” Vlasic said. “We’ve got to push through, and then enjoy the break. Things are going well, we’ve just got to keep it up here.”