Coaches often like to say points in October and November count as much as they do in March and April.
The San Jose Sharks are living proof of that.
The Sharks had 21 victories heading into the Christmas break -- tied for second-best in the Western Conference behind the Chicago Blackhawks, who had 22 wins. So when they hit a speed bump in March, losing six consecutive games, their success in the first half of the season provided enough of a cushion to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Despite the prolonged slump, San Jose is in and will have a chance to return to the Cup Final, where it lost in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins last season.
Here are five reasons the Sharks clinched a playoff berth:
1. Home cooking
Last season, the Shark Tank was relatively unfriendly to the home team, the Sharks winning 18 of 41 games at the SAP Center, 12th out of 14 teams in the Western Conference. This season, they've been far more consistent at home and at 24-10-4, have one of the top home records in the conference.
Video: NYR@SJS: Jones turns away Grabner with his pads in OT
2. Brent Burns
The dominance of defenseman Brent Burns is a huge factor in the Sharks being where they are. In early March, Burns was hovering near the top of the NHL scoring race, right there with Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby, heady territory for any player, almost impossible to imagine for a defenseman in this day and age.
Burns remains one of the Norris Trophy favorites and was considered, in some quarters, a viable candidate for the Hart Trophy before the late-season slump. He has 73 points (28 goals, 45 assists) and ended a 16-game goal drought when he scored to give the Sharks a 5-4 overtime win against the New York Rangers on Tuesday, when San Jose clinched its berth. Burns is the catalyst for everything the Sharks do well, offensively as well as defensively.
Video: NYR@SJS: Burns blasts PPG to give Sharks OT win
3. Impact of Logan Couture
Couture finished tops in scoring in the playoffs last season with 30 points in 24 games, six ahead of Burns, one of the largest margins in years, which helped him salvage an injury-filled regular season that limited him to 36 points (15 goals, 21 assists) in 52 games.
Couture managed to carry that momentum into the regular season and out-did his numbers of 2015-16 with more than a month remaining in the regular season with 52 points (25 goals, 27 assists) in 73 games. Couture has been particularly good on the power play, which at times has struggled this season. He leads the Sharks with 11 power-play goals.
Video: ANA@SJS: Couture scores PPG in 500th NHL game
4. Defense rules
The Sharks were 10th in overall goals-against average last season, partly because they had to rely on goaltender Martin Jones to carry most of the load (65 appearances) until James Reimer came in as a trade deadline acquisition.
This season, Aaron Dell - a relative unknown - has provided valuable minutes in relief of Jones. Dell has 10 victories with a goals-against average of 2.09 and .928 save percentage, making the decision for coach Peter DeBoer to rest Jones at times a fairly easy one.
Video: SJS@DAL: Dell makes marvelous pad stop on Seguin
5. Peter DeBoer
DeBoer has steered the Sharks through some turbulent times this season. Joe Thornton's and Joel Ward's scoring totals are down, Tomas Hertl missed time with an injury, and Mikkel Boeddker needed half a season to acclimate himself.
However, DeBoer's steady hand and wry sense of humor kept the Sharks mostly on track, getting production out of a team that looked to be in transition two seasons ago when it missed the playoffs, but has been consistent since he took over.