The San Jose Sharks were 18-18-2 (38 points) and in sixth place in the Pacific Division the morning of Jan. 9. A 7-0 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs that night launched a 27-11-4 run that has the Sharks in third in the Pacific and headed back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
San Jose, which missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2002-03, clinched its postseason berth with a 5-2 win against the Los Angeles Kings on March 28.
Since Jan. 9, the Sharks 27 wins are tied for second in the NHL behind the Pittsburgh Penguins 28, their 58 points are second to the Penguins' 59, and their 131 goals are third.
Led by coach Peter DeBoer, Hart Trophy candidate Joe Thornton and Norris Trophy contender Brent Burns, the Sharks' mission is far from complete. Two years ago, they blew a 3-0 series lead against the Kings in the Western Conference First Round, and they haven't been past the second round since 2011 and have never played in the Stanley Cup Final.
"It's a good feeling knowing that we weren't there last year," captain Joe Pavelski told the San Jose Mercury News on March 16. "And obviously coming into [training] camp we wanted to get back there. That was first and foremost. The next part is preparing our game. When we do get to the playoffs, we want to be able to make some noise."
Here are five reasons the Sharks clinched:
At 36 years old, Thornton is enjoying a renaissance season.
His 52 points since Jan. 9 are second in the NHL behind Sidney Crosby. His 61 assists and 79 points lead the Sharks, and he has 27 power-play points.
In San Jose's past 32 wins, Thornton has at least one point, the longest streak since Dany Heatley had a point in 35 straight Ottawa Senators victories in 2005-06, according to CSNBayArea.com.
"He's enjoying it more," forward Logan Couture told CSNBayArea.com. "He's come in with a new coaching staff, and they've been awesome from Day One with everyone, including [Thornton]. He enjoys it. He's having a blast coming to the rink."
Pavelski's 36 goals lead the Sharks and are among the top 10 in the NHL, but the Sharks have received contributions from their supporting cast.
Couture, who has 15 goals and 35 points in 50 games, is a valuable cog in the lineup. Without Couture, who missed 30 games because of a fractured right fibula and surgery to repair a bleeding artery in his right thigh, the Sharks were 14-15-1. With him, they're 30-13-5.
Forward Joel Ward is approaching his NHL career high of 24 goals set last season with the Washington Capitals. Third-year forward Tomas Hertl has set NHL career highs in goals, assists and points. Rookie forward Joonas Donskoi , has emerged as a key second-line right wing.
"Any line can score. Any line is dangerous," Thornton said. "Pete does a good job of just rolling lines too. There's no [line] matching; just go out and play. I think guys get in rhythms that way. ... We're a very, very deep team right now."
Veteran Paul Martin, who has a plus-14 rating, has stabilized the defense, especially in the absence of the injured Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
Burns has gone from a solid forward to an elite defenseman. His 74 points broke Sandis Ozolinsh's single-season Sharks record for a defenseman, and his 27 goals are the most by a defenseman since Mike Green scored 31 for the Capitals in 2008-09.
"He has to be up for the Norris," Thornton said. "The guy's unbelievable. He plays in all situations. When he's out there, you feel like something can happen every shift. What a year he's having. Right now, he's playing great hockey."
San Jose solidified its goaltending through two trades. Martin Jones was acquired from the Boston Bruins on June 30, 2015, and then signed to a three-year contract.
Once Jonathan Quick's backup in Los Angeles, Jones has established himself as the No. 1 goalie in San Jose. In 63 games this season, he's 36-22-4 with a 2.26 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. Among his highlights was a 47-save performance in a 2-1 overtime win against the Calgary Flames on March 7, the most by a Sharks goalie since Evgeni Nabokov had 50 on Feb. 11, 2010.
On Feb. 27, the Sharks acquired James Reimer from the Maple Leafs. In eight games since the trade, he's 6-2-0 with a 1.62 GAA and .938 save percentage.
"He's been great," DeBoer said of Reimer. "This guy's a starting goalie in the NHL, and it's a great luxury to have."
San Jose's 28 road wins are most in the League and a franchise record for most in a season. The Sharks successfully navigated a stretch of 13 of 18 games away from SAP Center following the All-Star break, going 11-5-2.
By Jon Lane @JonLaneNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer