For much of the past three seasons the San Jose Sharks have rolled through the regular season, collecting three division titles, two Western Conference crowns and a Presidents' Trophy along the way.
This season the path to the Stanley Cup Playoffs has not been nearly as smooth, and a six-game skid last month threatened to derail the Sharks' campaign completely, but they have stabilized with a recent run of success.
"Maybe the fans and the media have come to expect us to be a top team every year, but I don't think as players you approach the season thinking it is going to be an easy road," Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle
said. "Every year is different. Our expectations are high, but that doesn't mean we expected it to be easy and it hasn't happened.
"It is a fight, and it is a fight to the finish. Unfortunately we dug ourselves a hole there with an average first half and we're trying to get ourselves out of it still."
The Sharks lost six straight games from Jan. 3-13 and missing the playoffs became a very real proposition. They poured 36 shots on Ryan Miller but lost 3-0 to the Buffalo Sabres, 43 on Pekka Rinne in a 2-1 loss to Nashville and 37 in a 1-0 loss to Jonas Hiller and the Anaheim Ducks.
If that wasn't bad enough, then came back-to-back losses to Toronto and Edmonton and the streak threatened to spiral out of control.
"Jacques Lemaire, when I was in Minnesota, always talked about his team getting sick and how the germ gets in and then you show symptoms of being sick," San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. "We're trying to stop the germ from creeping into our game. I don't think it has when you look at the games we've played over the last little bit, but we're well aware that it can and we'll try to stop it at any cost."
Added forward Logan Couture
: "It is tough. You see yourself falling out of the playoff picture and it weighs on you every day. I went on a similar streak last year when I was with Worcester (AHL). We lost seven or eight in a row. Losing streaks bring teams closer together. With the way we've responded I think it will help us in the long run."
Respond the Sharks have -- San Jose is 8-0-1 since the loss to the Oilers and has climbed to fourth place in a congested Western Conference. There have been plenty of victories against tough competition as well -- road wins at Vancouver, Boston and Anaheim and wins against Phoenix in both teams' buildings.
Even with the hot streak the Sharks still are only four points ahead of ninth-place Los Angeles. The schedule doesn't get much easier in the short-term with seven of the next nine games away from HP Pavilion.
Every team has hit a bump in the road along the way," Sharks forward Devin Setoguchi said. "We lost six in a row and I guess you can say it is another learning curve for us. We weren't necessarily playing bad, but there were nights where bounces didn't go our way. A lot of times there is a mentality that comes into play -- you get down a goal or two and it is tough to fight out of it. Now things are going well and we're playing the way we can and guys are looking forward to coming to the rink."
Like their forthcoming opponent, goal prevention has played a big part in the turnaround. The Sharks have yielded 16 goals during this 8-0-1 stretch, including a shutout Saturday of the Bruins at TD Garden.Antti Niemi
has started every game of this streak with Antero Niittymaki on the mend from a groin injury (Niittymaki will dress against the Capitals as the backup). Save for spotting Phoenix a 3-0 lead Feb. 1 and getting pulled, Niemi has been stout in net and the Sharks have regained their offensive touch.
"We've kind of stuck to our system better and played more as a team," Couture said. "When we were going through that losing streak, it seemed like we were getting away from the way the Sharks play. I think that is something we've changed. We've had some great goaltending, too. Niemi has been unbelievable. We've scored some timely goals and we've found ways to win games. We've won ugly games, come-from-behind games -- basically every way you can win a game."
Couture's breakout campaign has been a big part of San Jose's success. He played 25 games for the Sharks last season -- the maximum allowed to retain rookie status. He had 5 goals in the regular season and added 4 more in 15 postseason contests.
This season Couture has become a fixture of the San Jose attack. Skating with Ryan Clowe and Joe Pavelski
on the team's second line, Couture leads the team with 24 goals, and that trio has been a great counterpunch when teams try to nullify the top line of Joe Thornton
, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau
"Every team we play does it -- they are some of the best players in the world," Couture said. "This team needs secondary scoring because every night teams are going to lock in on Jumbo and Heater and Patty. It creates some space for other players to step up and score and be successful. That's what we need if we want to go far this year."
This current nine-game streak of success has quelled concerns about the team's postseason viability for now, but one more skid could be too much overcome given how tight the standings are in the West. There may have been times in the past few seasons where the Sharks were playing for home-ice advantage in the playoffs or just waiting for the postseason to arrive, but that won't be the case in the next couple of months.
"We've played better defensively," Pavelski said. "We've scored first a few times, which has helped. There was a sense of urgency -- that was the big thing. If we don't do what we did, we're looking out (of the playoffs) right now. We've still got a long ways to travel. You look at the standings, and does anyone in here feel safe? No, not even close. It is important to keep this thing going in the right direction."