As they closed in on the halfway point of the season, the Anaheim Ducks were threatening to run away with the Pacific Division. That's impressive because there’s no fewer than three legitimate Stanley Cup picks in that division, and Vancouver’s strong play lately suggests that maybe the number is higher.
For Anaheim, game No. 41 came against a San Jose team that appears serious about staying with the Ducks -- even as injuries up front transform its forward group.
The Sharks snapped the Ducks' 10-game win streak Sunday night with a 3-1 win in San Jose and in doing so sent a message to Anaheim that they’re up to the challenge. If anything, the Ducks' success is a perfect antidote for the midseason malaise that often sidelines the Sharks for stretches during the regular season.
Now they’ve got two teams in their own state keeping them sharp.
“What happens out here, and you’re seeing it, it forces you to get better,” said Sharks GM Doug Wilson when we chatted before Sunday night’s game. “You’ve got to stay with the group. [Anaheim’s] big guys have played extremely well. They’ve got contributions all the way through the lineup. They’ve played very well.”
It doesn’t end there.
“So has L.A. So have we, Colorado, Chicago, St. Louis, Vancouver,” Wilson said. “You have to play well just to stay competitive in the West. Even teams that have played well, they’re looking to somehow catch up. The competition is healthy.”
The Sharks, however, are not healthy, which leads us to our first “Next Question” of the week:
Who will the Sharks lean on at forward to begin the second half of the season as injuries add up?
The emergence of Tomas Hertl this season changed the dynamic of the Sharks, giving them depth at forward that they didn’t always have in the past and giving San Jose a top line of Joe Thornton, Brent Burns and Hertl that was an absolute bear to match up against. The trio (according to the line production tool at leftwinglock.com) accounted for 16 goals together before Hertl was injured, a number that still puts them in the top 10 among the league’s most productive lines. Hertl is out with a knee injury that hurt not only the Sharks but his hopes of playing in the Olympics.
“I feel bad for Tomas, he was playing extremely well,” Wilson said. “We obviously had high expectations for him coming in, which he certainly met. He was in the Calder race certainly, probably going to play in the Olympics. To see that happen, on a personal note, is tough to see.”
Martin Havlat remains out with a lower body injury, and the Sharks can no longer count on him in their top-six since injuries have removed the explosiveness and speed that made him such an effective player -- at least for now.