They got there in emphatic fashion, crushing the Dallas Stars 6-0 on Thursday night at HP Pavilion to clinch a playoff spot in the Western Conference -- and deliver a blow to the reeling Stars' postseason hopes.
With 99 points, the Sharks moved one point ahead of Detroit for the No. 2 spot in the West in a battle for seeding and potential home-ice advantage in case they meet in the playoffs. The Sharks also put some distance between themselves and Phoenix (95), Los Angeles (94), Nashville (94) and Anaheim (93) in the West.
Dallas, which led the Pacific Division for much of the season, remained stuck at 87 points, tied for with Calgary for ninth place in the West, three behind No. 8 Chicago. The Stars and Blackhawks each have six games left, while the Flames have four.
"It's an accomplishment," Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle said of making the postseason. "Obviously we did it a different way than the last couple years. We certainly fought our way back into it. Dallas, which was the team that was leading our division by tons, they're now in trouble. Things happened pretty quickly, but we got a huge win tonight. We've just got to make sure we keep playing the right way coming down the stretch."
The Sharks got a pair of goals from Patrick Marleau, who had a franchise record 12 shots on goal, and one each from Boyle, Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Ben Eager, along with goalie Antti Niemi's sixth shutout of the season. They led 1-0 after the first period, 3-0 after the second and had a season-high 52 shots to just 29 for Dallas.
"They are an opportunistic bunch," Stars center Brenden Morrow said of the Sharks. "They make you pay if you make a mistake. It was a bit of a mess today. … We're running out of games, and it's starting to be do-or-die."
Sharks center Joe Thornton, who entered the game with 995 career points, had a pair of assists and moved within three points of becoming just the 78th member of the NHL's 1000-point club.
The Sharks made the playoffs for the seventh straight season and the 11th time in the past 12. But unlike the last couple of seasons, when they were among the NHL's best teams from the start of the season, the Sharks playoff run looked like anything but a sure thing after a slow start and an ugly first two weeks of 2011. From Jan. 1-13, the Sharks lost six straight games - their longest losing streak since dropping seven straight during the 1995-96 season - and nine of 10, earning just one point. At that point, they were 21-19-5, last in the Pacific Division and in a three-way tie for 10th in the West with 47 points, three behind No. 8 Colorado and 12 points behind No. 2 Detroit.
After that nosedive, something apparently clicked for the Sharks. They won nine of their next 10 games, scoring at least one point in all 10. Since that six-game skid, they've gone 24-4-4.
Now that the Sharks have made the playoffs, coach Todd McLellan said this is no time to feel a sense of relief or go on "cruise control." With the Pacific Division title and a No. 2 seed still at stake, he wants his team to go into the playoffs at 100 mph and keep producing under intense pressure.
Thursday night's game marked the first meeting between these two teams since March 15 at Dallas, when the Sharks beat the Stars 6-3 in a confrontation marked by hard hits and bad blood.
Sharks forward Dany Heatley was suspended two games for elbowing Dallas' Steve Ott in the head. Defenseman Niclas Wallin missed three games after taking a hard hit from Stars forward Jamie Langenbrunner that sent his head bouncing off the glass. Dallas' forward Loui Erikson missed two games thanks to a blow from Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray. Neither Langenbrunner nor Murray was penalized. But there was too much on the line for both teams for the return match to turn into a revenge-fest.
"We don't like them, they don't like us," Couture said. "We wanted to bury them and create some space."
The Sharks didn't officially kill the Stars' playoff hopes, but the loss hurt.
"That was a bad game for us, especially the last two periods," Stars coach Marc Crawford said. "Give the Sharks credit. We've played 16 games where we've been in every game. They've all been dogfights. This is one we can throw in the garbage can -- and you just have to move forward from it."
The Sharks took a 1-0 lead at 16:12 of the first period when Boyle rocketed a rebound past Lehtonen, with a huge assist from Joe Pavelski. A streaking Pavelski took a pass from Kyle Wellwood and had the puck on a breakaway in the left circle with only Jeff Woywitka between him and Lehtonen. Pavelski headed inside, stopped sharply, did a counter-clockwise spin and whipped a shot on goal. Lehtonen rejected Pavelski's shot but couldn't smother the puck, and a hustling Boyle was there to knock it home for the Sharks, who outshot Dallas 14-10 in the first.
The Sharks made it 2-0 at 4:30 in the second period on Couture's power-play goal, his 31st goal of the season, an ongoing franchise rookie record. Once again, the Sharks scored on a rebound.
Vlasic made it 3-0 at 18:25 of the second period before the Sharks blew it open in the third on two goals by Marleau and a spectacular goal by Eager.
"Honestly, he looks like the best player in the world," Thornton said of Marleau. "He's just so powerful. He's scoring. He just gets in these grooves. He's very, very hard to stop."
The two goals were Marleau's 34th and 35th -- he's had 35 or more in each of the last three seasons.
"Paddy has been probably been his most consistent," McLellan said. "In the past he has played some tremendous games but maybe has not put as many together -- but he's got it going right now."
|Dan Boyle (7) ASST: Joe Pavelski (44), Kyle Wellwood (3)|
1 - 0 SJS
|PPG - Logan Couture (31) ASST: Ryane Clowe (37), Dany Heatley (36)|
2 - 0 SJS
|Marc-Edouard Vlasic (3) ASST: Joe Thornton (46), Devin Setoguchi (17)|
3 - 0 SJS
|Patrick Marleau (34) ASST: Jamal Mayers (10), Ian White (22)|
4 - 0 SJS
|Patrick Marleau (35) ASST: Joe Thornton (47), Dany Heatley (37)|
5 - 0 SJS
|Ben Eager (6) ASST: Jamal Mayers (11), Marc-Edouard Vlasic (13)|
6 - 0 SJS
|Jeff Woywitka Roughing against Joe Pavelski|
|Trevor Daley Hooking against Joe Pavelski|
|Joe Thornton Hooking against Brad Lukowich|
|Jamal Mayers Hi-sticking against Tom Wandell|
|Devin Setoguchi Tripping against Alex Goligoski|
|Tomas Vincour Too many men/ice - bench|