SAN JOSE: The Sharks don’t know whom they’ll be playing in the first round of the playoffs next month, and they might not know until the final day of the regular season.
All things considered, it might not matter.
If the Sharks finish second or third in the Pacific Division, a near-certainty at this point, they’ll get Anaheim or Los Angeles in the first round. Should the Sharks advance from that series, it’s a good bet they’ll face the other Southern California team.
Whatever happens, it will be the start of a daunting challenge just to get out of the Pacific Division, with three of the heaviest forechecking teams in the NHL — the Sharks, Ducks and Kings — in the same division, meaning only one will get to the Western Conference finals.
It’s hard to blame Sharks coach Pete DeBoer for already thinking about what lies ahead.
“You have to with all the preparation and the work involved in it,” DeBoer said when asked if he’s started to think about playoff matchups. “We have a pretty good idea who it’s going to be, one of two opponents probably.
“We’re going to start that preparation process behind closed doors as a coaching staff. The players have to concentrate on their last (five) games, but of course you start thinking about it.”
The NHL’s playoff format, adopted two seasons ago after realignment of the divisions, locks the top three teams in each of the four divisions into the playoffs. The top two other teams in each conference are wild cards, with the team that has the lesser record playing the top seed in the conference.
Last season, for instance, the Winnipeg Jets were the lowest-finishing wild-card team. They played Anaheim in the first round, as the Ducks finished with the highest point total in the West. Central Division winner St. Louis played the top wild-card team in Minnesota.
Anaheim dispatched of Winnipeg in four games, then Calgary in five. The Ducks faced Chicago in the third round, with the Blackhawks winning an epic seven-game series.
It doesn’t figure to be quite as easy this season to come out of the Pacific for either the Ducks, Kings or Sharks.
The Sharks, who are 1-3 against Anaheim this season and 3-1-1 against Los Angeles, still have a small chance at finishing first in the Pacific, meaning they would face wild-card contenders Minnesota, Colorado or Nashville in the first round.
According to sportsclubstats.com, there’s over a 98 percent chance the Sharks will finish second or third, with an 85 percent chance they’ll stay in third.
Would it be to the Sharks’ advantage to play the Kings right away and start the playoffs on the road? Potentially.
Not only did the Sharks win both meetings at Staples Center this season, they also might have a slight mental edge after Monday’s 5-2 win at SAP Center. The Sharks lost their last three games with Anaheim, including both at Honda Center.
There’s also the matter of getting the chance to exorcise old demons, as their last two playoff exits in 2013 and 2014 came at the hands of the Kings, both in seven games. The playoff loss to Los Angeles in 2014 was especially excruciating for those in teal — the Sharks won the first three games of the series, then lost the last four.
Regardless, the Sharks won’t have an easy path to where they want to go.
“Any time you play one of the two teams you’re probably going to get in the first round, it’s an opportunity to send a message about how you’re going to play,” DeBoer said. “Any time you can beat a team like that, it’s a confidence-builder for our group.
“That doesn’t get you anything come playoff time, but I’d rather be on the right end of that than the wrong end.”
Canucks forward Jake Virtanen received a two-game suspension from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety on Wednesday for interference on Sharks defenseman Roman Polak. The incident took place in the second period of Tuesday’s game, as Virtanen checked Polak in the neutral zone well after Polak had released the puck. Virtanen forfeits $9,614.70 of his average annual salary.
The NHL announced a scoring change on the Sharks’ second-period goal on Monday. Instead of Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns got credit for the goal, his 27th of the season, a new franchise record for a defenseman.