Strength of NHL’s Pacific Division

On Friday, a story published on Yahoo’s NHL page carried the headline “Sharks happily under the radar and winning after playoff run.” I found this story both intriguing and highly disappointing at the same time.

As a San Jose Sharks fan, I am happy to see my team at the top of the NHL’s Pacific Division; however, I temper that excitement with the fact that the Sharks are sporting a record of 19-12-1, good for 39 points, the lowest among the four division leaders. I have been hearing — both on NHL Network and NHL Radio — many discussions about how weak the Pacific is this year.

At the time of writing this column, if the playoffs started today, five teams from the division would be in. That is the same number as the currently vaunted Metropolitan.

The Sharks run to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring was a wonderful experience for a lifetime fan such as myself. After seeing the two other California teams — the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings — win it, and after seeing fellow current expansion era members — the Tampa Bay Lightning win — it was great to finally be able to cheer in the Finals myself — having that dog in the fight, as they say.

The Sharks gave a tremendous effort in getting to the Finals by first cruising past the Kings, eliminating the Nashville Predators, and finally drowning a very good St. Louis Blues’ team. In the end, they had very little left for the Finals, and it showed.

After starting slow, the Sharks have been very good of late, going 7-3-0 in their last 10 games, including Sunday’s loss to the Central Division-leading Chicago Blackhawks.

Despite having lost Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture to injury, the fact that the Sharks have been strong of late is an accomplishment in itself. The Sharks have had nice efforts from rookies Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier to help solidify things with Hertl and Couture out, and that seems to be working thus far. Meier scored in his NHL debut against the Montreal Canadiens; Labanc has four goals in 19 games.

Free agent signee Mikkel Boedker has not worked out as planned yet. Through 32 games he has just two goals and six points, but he has two assists in his last five games and is beginning to look comfortable in his new surroundings.

Going back to those Canadiens for a moment, they lead the Atlantic Division with a 20-7-4 record, good for 44 points. Goaltender Carey Price’s name is being bandied about for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player again.

One team has beaten the Canadiens twice this season: the Sharks. Did I mention that they accomplished that feat in a 14-day span? Oh, and they chased Price from the game on Friday.

The Sharks aren’t the only team in the Pacific quietly playing well. The Edmonton OIlers, who just happen to be coached by former Sharks’ coach Todd McLellan, are tied for second in the division alongside the Ducks. The Oilers are 16-12-5 on the season, with much of their offense revolving around former No. 1 overall pick, Connor McDavid. McDavid leads the league in assists (27) and points (39), and is second in points per game (1.18).

The Ducks are 16-12-5 overall and are doing so thanks to the resurgence of Ryan Kesler, who has 12 goals, 15 assists, and 27 points, tying him for the team lead with Ryan Getzlaf. The Ducks are also getting surprisingly good strong efforts from Jonathan Bernier in goal.

The Wild Card spots right now are taken up by the Los Angeles Kings and the Calgary Flames.

The Kings, of course, have played almost the entire season without starting netminder Jonathan Quick. They have had to rely on journeyman Peter Budaj. Budaj is only 14-8-0 on the season with 2.13 goals against average and a .915 save percentage. Not bad for a washed-up 34-year-old.

The Flames started the season so badly that they honestly considered trading Dougie Hamilton just to get some help up front because he was riding the bench more than playing and they were short on offense. With four points in his last five games, the young defender is now third on the team in scoring with 17 points and appears to be back on track.

The NHL season is more a marathon than a sprint, but right now at least, the Pacific Division is stronger than pundits make it out to be. The Sharks are leading a deep pack that could make a lot of noise by the time April rolls around.