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Pacific: Sharks hope to remain hot, healthy for playoffs

by Doug Ward

On Sunday, a 3-1 win over Phoenix assured the Sharks of having home ice against any playoff opponent other than Detroit. Sharks video
With a week remaining in the regular season and the franchise's third Pacific Division title safely on ice, the challenge for San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson becomes seeing to it that his club is both sharp and well rested when the Stanley Cup Playoffs open.

The scorching Sharks are 17-0-1-1 since Feb. 21, so if they can avoid a pratfall in their final three regular-season games, they will begin the playoffs with a running start.

As a reward for locking up the division, Wilson cancelled the Saturday practice he had scheduled for his team. Wilson also said he would reduce the ice time logged by "Joe Thornton, Brian Campbell, and people like that. You can take their minutes down and give other guys opportunities to get themselves ready for the playoffs."

Coincidence or not, the Sharks have gone 15-0-2 since acquiring Campbell from Buffalo in a Feb. 26 deadline beating deal. The offensive-minded defenseman has 15 points in his last 15 games. So, yes, it'd be nice to keep him fresh. Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who has played in a League-high 74 games, has also earned some rest.

Last weekend, the San Jose juggernaut continued to steamroll toward the postseason, picking up a pair of meaningful wins over Pacific Division rivals. The Sharks kicked things off by clinching the division title with a 3-1 win at Anaheim. The significance of securing the division crown on the defending Stanley Cup champs' home ice was not lost on the Sharks.

"It's gratifying to lock up the division and it's gratifying to do that here," Sharks center Jeremy Roenick told The San Jose Mercury News.

In ending the Ducks' franchise-record 10-game home winning streak, the Sharks improved their NHL best road record to 27-8-4. It was the second time in eight days that the Sharks had wrestled a four-point game from their intra-state rivals. San Jose finished the year with a 3-5 record against the Ducks.

Roenick said winning the division was merely the "first step in a process that we have our minds on right now."

On Sunday, a 3-1 win over Phoenix assured the Sharks of having home ice against any playoff opponent other than Detroit. With just three games remaining on the slate, the Sharks began the week still mathematically alive in the race for the Presidents' Trophy. With 106 points thus far, San Jose sits five points behind Detroit and just one point away from equaling the franchise high established last season.

If the Sharks can retain their edge while Wilson rests his key players, San Jose will enter the playoffs as hockey's hottest team. They've catapulted past Anaheim and Dallas to win the Pacific, but there is more to be accomplished. Wilson understands how fleeting a divisional title can be.

"It certainly gives us confidence," Wilson said. "But when the playoffs start, it doesn't matter."

Phoenix falls short -- The Coyotes' gallant bid for a playoff berth officially ended with Sunday's 3-1 loss to the Sharks in San Jose. Phoenix appeared to run out of gas late in the season, dropping seven of eight games down the stretch to fall out of contention. Still, the Coyotes season has to be considered a success. If they can pick up two points in their final three games, the Coyotes will have had their best season since 2001-02.

"We've had a nice turnaround this season with our young players," Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky said. "A week ago, we were right in the thick of things to make the playoff race. Nobody really anticipated that or expected it."

With three games remaining, the Coyotes have 80 points, a 13-point improvement over last season.

"We want home-ice advantage. We find it's very important." - Anaheim Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere
Stars vs. Ducks -- The Stanley Cup Playoffs don't begin for another week, but Sunday's game between the Ducks and Stars in Anaheim had postseason implications, and not surprisingly, Anaheim rose to the occasion.

In defeating the Stars, 3-2, in a shootout, Anaheim took a huge step toward assuring they will have home ice in any postseason meeting between the two clubs. Dallas is the only team that can force the Ducks to open on the road, and Anaheim needs just two points in their final two regular season games -- Saturday at Los Angeles and home against Phoenix Sunday -- to clinch home ice in the first round of the playoffs. The Ducks are now assured of finishing no worse than fifth in the Western Conference.

"We wanted that extra point," said goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, returning to the lineup after sitting out four games with back spasms. "We want home-ice advantage. We find it's very important."

If the playoffs opened today, Anaheim and Dallas would meet in the opening round. And, while Dallas won the season series, 5-3, Anaheim won the last two meetings.

Giguere summed things up best. 

"We know what time of year it is," he said.

Last, but not least -- In Los Angeles, where Stanley Cup Playoff games have not been played since 2001-02, the Kings find themselves in the familiar position of playing out the string. This year, however, all is not lost in Los Angeles. As the final week of the NHL season began, the Kings had just 69 points, and their hold on the League's worst overall record seemed secure.

Tampa Bay's 71 points were the League's second-worst, but the Lightning had four games remaining compared to just three for the Kings. In exchange for another lost season, the Kings will be the favorites to win the NHL's weighted draft lottery. No team can move down more than one slot, so if the Kings hold on to the League's worst record, they will be guaranteed of drafting no lower than second overall.

By most accounts, the prize awaiting the team that wins the draft lottery is 18-year-old Sarnia Sting center Steven Stamkos.

Who's hot -- Joe Pavelski of the Sharks has a goal and four assists in his last two games. …The Stars' Mike Ribeiro has five assists in two games, while teammate Stephane Robidas has a goal and two assists in two games. … San Jose goaltender Evgeni Nabokov is 2-0-0 with a 1.47 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in his last two games played.

Who's Not -- Anaheim's Francois Beauchemin has not scored in 13 games, while teammate Brian Sutherby is scoreless in 10 games. … The Coyotes' Niko Kapanen has not scored in seven games.

The Week Ahead
-- The Ducks will have the week off before closing out the regular season with a game at Los Angeles Saturday and a home game against Phoenix Sunday. … After losing six of their last seven games, the Stars hope to gain some semblance of momentum in their final three regular-season games. The Stars play the front end of a home-and-home series at Phoenix Thursday, then host the Coyotes Friday. Dallas then closes out the season vs. San Jose at home Sunday afternoon. … With their three remaining games coming against division frontrunners San Jose (Tue. at San Jose; Thursday at Staples Center) and Anaheim (Sat. at Staples), the Kings continue to close in on the League's worst record. … Phoenix will play out the season with a home-and-home series with Dallas (at home Thursday; at Dallas Friday) followed by a game at Anaheim Sunday. … Division champion San Jose will tune up for the postseason with a home-and-home series vs. Los Angeles (at San Jose, Tue; at Los Angeles, Thu.), followed by their season finale at Dallas (Sun.).

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