This is it, true believers. Only two regular season games left, and boy are they big ones. Tonight the Sharks face Vancouver and Saturday they close out the season against Phoenix - ending their season with games against two of the top four teams in the West. These games will be a great test for the Sharks, and I'm excited to see how the team performs.
The Sharks can't finish below second place in the west, but still face a lot of uncertainty. The Blackhawks are tied for the point lead and hold the tiebreaker, so the Sharks need to squeeze more points out of their last two games than Chicago in order to get the first seed and the first-round match-up against the Avalanche that would likely bring.
If the playoffs started today*, the Sharks would face the Kings in the opening round, Battle of California would become the number-one site on the internet, and Rudy and I would stop speaking to one another. Because of the strength of the Western Conference there is still a lot of rearranging that could occur in these last few games - but I'm starting to let myself dream of an SJ-LA first round.
I was happy with the Sharks' performance against the Flames, and I'm a bit disappointed we won't get to see them as a first-round opponent. I think the Sharks match-up well against Calgary, with San Jose's superior scoring depth making the difference in a tight defensive game. Nabokov was outstanding, Blake was much improved, and the forwards showed more commitment to D. The most exciting part of the game for me was late in the third period when Jamal Mayers' eyebrows challenged Patrick Marleau's eyebrows to a duel - we will have to wait and see how that turns out.
The lessons to be learned from the game against the Flames are that on-ice communication still needs to improve and that the defensemen need to be more aggressive in their coverage. Drew Remenda** pointed out on the Sharks' broadcast that there was a near-goal for the Flames in the third that resulted from a miscommunication between Douglas Murray and Scott Nichol. Murray pointed with his stick for Nichol to cover the Flame in front of the net, but Nichol didn't notice and instead they both ended up covering the same player, leaving a man open in front of the net. Murray needs to be more vocal and Nichol needs to be more aware in that situation to avoid embarrassing mistakes in the playoffs.
For much of the second half of the game the Sharks were simply working to clear the zone, and there were a lot of shots on Nabokov. If Nabby wasn't on his game, or the Flames had more offensive talent, the Sharks would have been in trouble. I'm not complaining here - I loved that they got the win - I'm just pointing out some areas that the team should address going forward. If we see a strong effort against a high-caliber offense like Vancouver's tonight, then maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to get a good night's sleep for once.
Prediction: Sharks win 3-2, with a goal by each member of the Heatley-Thornton-Marleau line.
Mascot Fight: As frightening as Vancouver's nightmare-whale is, it's no match for a hungry great white.
* = I remember watching NHL Tonight one time and John Buccigross, the greatest guy ever, said, "If the playoffs started today...there would be an investigation."
** = Drew "OH MY GOD I LOVE THE SUTTERS SO MUCH!!!1!!" Remenda