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The Western Conference might need a bigger boat

by David Kalan
In the suspense classic Jaws, it was clear Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss would need far more than a boat to keep Amity Island safe from repeated shark attacks. Unless you're a marine biologist, the best tack for keeping yourself safe is simple -- stay out of the water -- but if you're a contender in the Western Conference, you don't have a choice of staying out of the water when San Jose is on your schedule.

And those Sharks may not be getting a Spielberg film, but they are getting vicious.

Much of the talk over the past two months has revolved around teams making surprising runs to get into playoff contention, such as Buffalo or in particular the Devils, who have played themselves out of the League basement and are taking aim at an unlikely berth in the East. But lost in the shuffle is a remarkable reclamation project happening in the Bay Area, which just may be giving us a preview of who is going to be the most dangerous team in the West once the playoffs begin.

San Jose reaching the playoffs is no longer a noteworthy or surprising occurrence. The Sharks have won three straight Pacific Division titles and have missed the postseason just once since 1997, but for much of this season there was a good chance players could start booking April tee times at the Presidio golf course. After a 1-0 win over the Kings on New Year's Day, the Sharks hit the skids in a big way, enduring a six-game losing streak that culminated in a 5-2 pasting at the hand of the 15th-place Oilers at the Tank. On the morning of Jan. 15, San Jose was 21-19-5, 12th in the Western Conference and 10 points back of Dallas in the Pacific.

Not anymore.

Since then the Sharks have been rolling to the tune of 18-3-1 in their last 22 games, a streak that has San Jose not just in the top eight, but back in first place and just two points behind Detroit for the Conference's No. 2 seed. Over that span San Jose has lost consecutive games just once and that came near the end of a season-long seven-game road trip.

If you're looking for a reason as to why this is happening, one could point to Devin Setoguchi, who has tallied 17 of his 29 points this season in the last 22 games, or Patrick Marleau, who has 10 goals over the same stretch and has scored in three straight outings. But more likely, a renewed commitment to defense is what has coach Todd McLellan's charges climbing the standings at such a torrid pace. Over the first 45 games, San Jose gave up goals at a rate of 2.84 per game -- in the past 22 that number has dropped nearly a full goal to 1.86. Compared to San Jose's glory days -- the Sharks gave up 2.55 goals per game when they were the West's top seed last season and 2.43 per game two seasons ago when they won the Presidents' Trophy -- that figure is startling.

Playing a significant role in that is Antti Niemi, who after leading Chicago to a championship last season, may finally be returning to Stanley Cup form. Over the Sharks recent hot stretch he has a 17-3-1 record, three shutouts, a 1.96 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage.

But what might really give the rest of the West pause is not San Jose's meteoric rise, but who it's come against. The Sharks have played 12 games in their last 22 against teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today, and in those games they're an astounding 10-1-1. In that stretch San Jose has one win over League-leading Vancouver, two wins over Detroit and two wins over the resurgent Capitals. Incidentally, the Sharks face the Canucks again tonight at the Tank. Another win over the Presidents' Trophy favorites and it could be time to seriously consider San Jose as a Stanley Cup contender.

Tack onto that a 4-0-0 record against Minnesota, Nashville and Anaheim, who are all within three points of a playoff berth and it's clear that few teams have escaped the San Jose steamroller. In fact, the Sharks have faced all but two teams in the Western Conference in their last 22 games -- Edmonton, which might well be headed to a second consecutive No. 1 pick this June, and Chicago. The Blackhawks, who swept the Sharks in last year's Western Conference Final, should also be in the postseason field this spring, but San Jose boasts a 3-0-0 record against Chicago this season.

The Sharks are unlikely to keep up this pace all the way through June, but their play begs the question of whether there is any team that shouldn't fear them come April. Regardless of those fears, the rest of the West will have no choice but to get in the water. If the Sharks can continue to roll, however, their opponents may not have a choice of how long they get to stay there either.
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