It was only a four-game, eight-day road trip but now that we're back it seemed much longer. Maybe it's because we're just not used to traveling so far east this late in the regular season.
You have to go back to the 1997-98 NHL season to find the Sharks as far away from home playing game #76, as they were Saturday night in Carolina. That season they played their 76th game in Toronto. With the NCAA Basketball Tournament’s West Regional at HP Pavilion, the Sharks had to be out of the building last week. But why they had to go all the way back to the east again is hard to understand. Then again it's hard to understand why it took three separate road trips for the Sharks to play the five teams in the Southeast Division. Oh well, it is what it is. The good news is that the team went 4-1 in those five games.
What can you say about Joe Thornton
? All he did on the road trip was score two goals, add eight assists and jump right back into the race with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby for the Art Norris Trophy as the League’s scoring champion. Right now Joe has 104 points to Sid the Kid's 111. Both guys have six games to play. Thornton plays five of those on home ice. Crosby has four on the road and just two at home.
Back on February the first, Thornton was 20 points behind Crosby. Since then Joe has shaved about a point per game off the deficit. I believe Joe's going to catch Crosby. He probably won't publicly admit it but I think Joe is on a mission to do two things this year. He wants to take the Sharks to the Stanley Cup and prove wrong all the cynics who question his leadership. And I think he's also on a mission to win the scoring race again to show that last year wasn't a fluke.
And while we're on the topic of Joe Thornton
, how can you not consider him as a Hart Trophy candidate again this year? One Toronto columnist recently handicapped the NHL MVP race and didn't even have Joe in the Top 10! There's no question that players like Crosby, Daniel Briere in Buffalo and goalies Roberto Luongo in Vancouver and Martin Brodeur in New Jersey have been the most valuable players to their team. But can there be any question that Joe Thornton
is the most valuable player to the San Jose Sharks? Every forward that spends any time on his line (Michalek, Clowe, Cheechoo, Grier) blossoms. Without Thornton are the Sharks a legitimate Stanley Cup contender this year? No way. Thornton's every bit as much the League’s Most Valuable Player this season as any of the other players I mentioned. To not consider him a top candidate is ludicrous.
It's great that the Colorado Avalanche have made the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference so interesting but I don't think they're going to catch Calgary. The Flames remain 5 points ahead despite Colorado having won 10 of their last 12 games. Joe Sakic has been amazing down the stretch for the Avs but in the end I don't believe that Colorado's goaltending will hold up. The Flames and Avalanche face each other twice in the final two weeks of the season.
Even if Calgary were to lose both of those games in overtime or shootout, the bonus points would probably be enough to put them over the top for the eighth and final spot. In the event that the race goes right down to the wire, make sure to find a place to watch Calgary vs. Colorado on Sunday, April 8th. It's the last day of the NHL's regular season and the teams will meet in Denver to make up for a game that was snowed out earlier in the year. Imagine if it comes down to that game. Imagine if it comes down to the shootout!
One other note about Colorado. I've been critical in the past of the Avalanche organization for failing to acknowledge on the Jumbotron or on the public address system, Teemu Selanne's 500th career goal when he scored it in Denver earlier this season. During the Sharks game in Denver on this past road trip, the Avalanche did make special mention of Sharks Head Coach Ron Wilson coaching his 1,000th career game. Nice touch.
It's been a tough year again for the Chicago Blackhawks on the ice where they will miss the playoffs for the ninth time in the last 10 seasons. Off the ice it's a difficult time for the franchise too. On the off night before the Sharks-Hawks game last week at the United Center, I went to the ESPN Zone in downtown Chicago with Sharks producer Frank Albin and graphics guru "Uncle" Darin Stephens to catch the Blackhawks versus Blue Jackets game that night in Columbus. Despite having screens available for 18 different live sports feeds, the management at ESPN Zone denied our request to show the Blackhawks game. We were astonished. We were in downtown Chicago and the biggest sports bar in town wouldn't put on the local team’s hockey game. We were told that the game didn't have playoff implications so why should they care. Brutal.
On the other hand we were treated to the finest of southern hospitality in North Carolina. Last Friday night a group of us wanted to watch some NHL action and headed to an establishment in Cary, North Carolina called Woody's Sports Tavern & Grill. Keep in mind that the local North Carolina Tar Heels were playing USC that night in the NCAA Basketball Tournament and there were other big hoops games on earlier. Not only did they put hockey on for us, they put on two NHL games and the NCAA Hockey tournament. We were in hockey heaven, smack dab in the middle of college basketball country. That's what I call hospitality. Our appreciation was reflected in our waitress’s gratuity.
All-in-all, the road was good... but it's great to be home. See you at the Tank.
For Seagate Technology’s “In the Crease,” I’m Randy Hahn.