Former Pacific Division rivals clashed in Northern Texas to likely compete for the same Stanley Cup playoff berth Thursday, Feb. 19. The Dallas Stars hosted the game as winners of four of their last five games of the 2014-15 NHL season, while the San Jose Sharks had just two victories in nine February contests.
That is why they play the games. San Jose erupted for three early goals and then held on in a third period in which Dallas replacement goalie Jhonas Enroth faced only two shots thanks to the other two going into an empty net.
In the end, not enough of the pictured (lower-case) stars of the game were (upper-case) Stars in what was actually a very big game. A strong case can be made that this was the first playoff game for both teams.
Official 2014-15 NHL season standings list the Sharks in the final wild card spot, but the Los Angeles Kings are half a game ahead and the Minnesota Wild are even but have a better point percentage. In a league that collectively is currently 219 points over .500 and has teams with almost 20 percent more of their season remaining, using points is ridiculous.
San Jose is going to struggle to get to the playoffs. It is worse for Dallas.
The top three spots in the Central Division are taken, so the Stars are looking for a wild card berth. Below are the Colorado Avalanche that won the division last season. Above lurk the Wild in better position to take down the Winnipeg Jets or Sharks or Calgary Flames or Los Angeles Kings or maybe even Vancouver Canucks for the wild card berths. Two of those Pacific Division teams will claim higher seeds and not need the wild card.
That still leaves Dallas with five other teams fighting for two spots. Most of the others will have easier schedules, too.
The Central Division is by far the toughest division (plus-87 is equal to the plus-32 Pacific Division and the Metropolitan Division that was 10 points further above .500 than the Atlantic Division), so the Stars now have to gain ground against teams with leads and mostly easier schedules.
Among them is San Jose, who sits two games ahead of them after this win and plays 14 of its remaining 22 games against one of the other 18 teams that are not a dozen or more points over .500. Dallas plays 12 of 24 remaining games against the top-11 teams that are at least plus-15, with 13 on the road and 11 at home.
The Stars are not going to gain three games and move ahead of three teams with that schedule remaining on their 2014-15 NHL season. They are simply not good enough.
On the other hand, the Sharks are back among the living with this win. They could move back into position for the Stanley Cup playoffs with a regulation win over the Pacific Division-rival Los Angeles Kings at Levi’s Stadium Saturday.
A win in that game makes a winning record in February a realistic result that turns the first half of the month into more of a blip. Add a victory in the 2014-15 NHL season finale could give the team some measure of revenge on the Pacific Division rivalry as the games could decide the final Western Conference wild card spot.
Do not expect that to happen. Los Angeles has a better roster on paper and has proven themselves through two Stanley Cup titles. San Jose had the eventual return champions on the rope 3-0 in the series and choked the last four games to become the fifth team in major North American professional sports history to lose all four potential elimination games during the 2014 Pacific Division semifinals.
A win at Levi’s Stadium might be even less likely. The Kings are hot, winning six in a row. The Sharks have allowed four goals in six of their seven losses in 10 February games of the 2014-15 NHL season.
Perhaps more importantly, Los Angeles has been in a Stadium Series game before. The players admit it feels different, only two of San Jose’s players have experienced it before and neither of them should really be dressed for the game considering the negligible upgrade they provide over younger players needing a chance to develop.
While the Sharks are getting used to the grandeur of a unique game, soaking in the environment and getting used to the different visuals of playing outdoors under lights, the Kings will be going about their business. It is a no-brain bet to take the better team that is currently hotter and has been in this situation before.
What San Jose should be able to do is take advantage of being relatively healthy and the experience its young talent has gained. It should be juiced to play in this game with big implications because both Pacific Division rivals in playoff mode, especially in front of its home crowd. It also has had success against Los Angeles so far in the 2014-15 NHL season, going 2-1-0 with a 9-5 composite score.
However, both Pacific Division teams are different now. The first meeting opened the 2014-15 NHL season for both teams.
The Sharks started out 4-0-1 with two shutouts and a 19-10 composite scoring. One of the shutouts was in that opener, but February is a time they often struggle while the Kings are usually just getting going.
Los Angeles dug itself a later hole than usual, but has turned it around in time to keep this from being truly a must-win game. Thus another advantage San Jose might have is the increased urgency.
With where the Sharks are in the 2014-15 NHL season standings, they have to get points. Getting one might have to suffice, though if the game makes it to overtime the advantages the Kings have are basically gone.
That means even after basically knocking Dallas out of the playoffs, San Jose is likely to be back on life support with a regulation loss at Levi’s Stadium. Los Angeles continues building on recent success and this game becomes another step on the climb to an eventual second-place finish in the Pacific Division.