SAN JOSE -- The San Jose Sharks grabbed first place in the Pacific Division with an emotional 3-2 home victory against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday night. But they should have enough incentive to avoid a letdown Saturday night when they face the Washington Capitals at SAP Center.
After all, the Sharks could clinch their 10th straight berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a win and some help.
The Sharks are in if they earn two points against the Capitals and either the Ottawa Senators beat the Dallas Stars in any fashion or the Phoenix Coyotes lose in regulation to the Boston Bruins. San Jose can also clinch if they earn one point against Washington and the Stars lose to Ottawa in regulation.
"We've got to get there first, but when we do, and we believe we can, it will be an accomplishment that we should be proud of," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "But just getting there, getting to the race, to the tournament isn't what we set out to do. Obviously finishing it is the ultimate goal. But to get there 10 years in a row in a cap-type league where it's tough to win every year is a remarkable feat."
With 99 points, the Sharks have a two-point lead in the Pacific and will try to extend that edge over the idle Ducks.
"If you lose tonight, Thursday's game means nothing," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. "We realize how big these points are, and we realize how big a game tonight is for those guys over there. It's going to be a good, intense game."
With 77 points, Washington sits two points behind the Detroit Red Wings, who took over the Eastern Conference's second wild-card spot with a 3-2 win against the Minnesota Wild Saturday afternoon. Detroit also has a game in hand.
The Capitals opened their three-game California road trip with a 3-2 victory against the Ducks then suffered a 2-1 shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Now they'll end their trip with a game against the surging Sharks.
"They are right now probably one of the best teams in the League," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said of the Sharks. "Tonight is going to be another good challenge for us. With the position we are in right now, we need points. Every point counts."
Sharks forward Raffi Torres will miss his seventh straight game because of soreness in his surgically repaired right knee. He has played only five games this season, all after the NHL's break for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
"A tiny bit frustrated," Torres said when asked to discuss his struggles with injuries after the Sharks' morning skate. "I'm just taking the time to get ready for when it counts. Could I go out and play right now? Yeah, I probably could. But the team's playing so well. They've played well all year. Why not just be the little piece toward the end of the season? If I can come and be just an extra little push or a little plus positive to the team, then that's what I'm going to do."
Torres disputed the perception that he returned to the lineup too soon after undergoing knee surgery during training camp.
"I felt great. I was telling them I was ready to play three or four games before the break," Torres said. "I came back and felt great. There's no reason why I couldn't go out and play. I could still go out and play right now. Could I be effective the way they want me to? Probably not. It's getting better every day. We're on the right track. Every day I get a little more positive toward how my body's feeling.''
Here are the projected lineups for the Capitals and Sharks: