Monday, March 28, 2016

Weekend report: The Pacific's big three

Faceoff: Pumping the Shark

Last week, I wrote about the top to (almost) bottom dominance of the Central Division, with a focus on the division's Big Three of Chicago, St. Louis and Dallas. Among the responses to that post came a pushback that would have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago: Hey, what about the Pacific?

Now to be clear, nobody is arguing that the Pacific has any sort of claim on the "best division" status—it may even be the worst, given how awful its bottom four teams are. But some readers wanted to know if its top three of the Kings, Ducks and Sharks are right up there with the Central's—and maybe even better?

The short answer: Huh. Yeah, they just might be.

The long answer starts over the Christmas holidays, when the division looked like a trainwreck. The Kings were good—so good, in fact, that they'd all but been handed the division crown. The second-place Sharks were fine, but were just one point up on Colorado, the Central's sixth-best team. The Canucks, Flames, Coyotes and Oilers were all scraping along, each losing more than they'd won. And all the way at the bottom of the conference sat the Ducks, the unmitigated disaster of the season's first half.

We already know what happened with Anaheim, whose refusal to panic and serve up the head of coach Bruce Boudreau paid off with a second-half surge back into the league's top tier. That changed the tone of the division, even as the four bad teams continued to plummet. By early March, the Ducks had pulled even with Los Angeles atop the division, and that seemed to light a fire under the Kings, who spent most of March heating up enough to regain the lead.

So sure, the Kings look great, as they almost always have during the Darryl Sutter era. And for the past few months, the Ducks have been just as good or better. We know all that. But the interesting team here is San Jose.

By now, the Sharks' narrative is well-established. They were a great team for a long time, but just couldn't get it done in the playoffs. Everyone has their theories as to why that was. Character? Heart? Joe Thornton, somehow, even though he's their best player? Or maybe just a good team whose only real flaw was that it didn't get the bounces at the right time. Whatever it was, everyone could agree that the Sharks' window had slammed shut with their 2014 collapse against the Kings followed by last year's playoff miss.

Well, almost everyone—GM Doug Wilson never seemed quite sure whether or not he was rebuilding. The team wanted to trade Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but didn't. Wilson said the rebuild was on, then kept bringing in veterans. You never really knew what to expect from these new-but-old Sharks, except that their days among the league's elite were done.

As the Sharks are proving, the Thornton/Marleau era isn't done just yet. –Photo by Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

But so far this year, they're... well, we're still not quite sure what they are. They've lost three straight, leaving them sitting third in the Pacific at 41-28-6, four points back of the Ducks and seven behind the Kings. That's still good enough to have them hovering right around the league's top ten overall, in a log jam with other good-but-not-great teams like the Islanders and Bruins. But if you prefer your numbers to come in the fancy stats variety, the Sharks start to look very good. And the rest of the league seems to be warming up to their chances; there's been a decided increase in "don't sleep on the Sharks" chatter lately.

But the biggest question still looms: Can they beat one of their California rivals in round one? And can they do it with enough left in the tank to beat the other one in round two? They'll probably have to in order to reach the conference final. And this is where all those past playoff ghosts start to haunt the conversation again, because the Sharks have never been the team you want to pick to exceed postseason expectations.

But maybe that's the whole point. We've always expected too much of the Sharks. What better way for the Thornton/Marleau era to end than to go into the playoffs as a clear underdog for the first time in over a decade, and shock the world?

Or maybe not. Either way, the top three in the Pacific can look scary good. And yes, maybe even Central-scary good.

Race to the Cup

The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

5. Chicago Blackhawks (44-25-7, +25 true goals differential)Every time I say nice things about the Blackhawks, smart hockey people want to whisper in my ear that this year's team isn't as good as we all think it is. Just thought I'd get that on the record. And while we're at it, Corey Crawford is no sure thing to be back in time for the playoffs.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports


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