Monday, February 23, 2009

Sharks Can Take Control on Road Trip

The San Jose Sharks embark on a four-game road trip to end February that is the second longest of the season and longest remaining trip in both length and distance. It starts in Dallas Monday at 5pm PST and ends Saturday at 4pm PST in Montreal.

What a difference a week makes.

A week ago, this looked like an especially difficult trip. The Stars were surging toward what looked to be a certain fifth or sixth seed in the West, Detroit looked like it would challenge the Sharks for the top seed, Ottawa had won five straight through February 16, and Montreal had added Matthieu Schneider to their defence.

Now, the Stars have lost their best remaining skater, the Sharks lead over the Wings has grown to three games (three points plus three games in hand), and Ottawa has dropped three. Montreal's problems are the stuff of a bad movie: Alexei Kovalev being sent home for a couple games and the Kostitsyn brothers and Roman Hamrlik being linked to organized crime. (Maybe Hamrlik should have used that connection to sabotage Alex Ovechkin's skates before he made him look so bad.)

Perhaps more significantly, San Jose has four of its six injured players back for this trip. Defenceman Brad Lukowich has yet to play, but has been activated and took part in the pre-game skate before Saturday's game before the coaching staff decided to scratch him. Forwards Jody Shelley, Tomas Plihal, and Jeremy Roenick returned to play in that game.

Even an overtime/shootout loss Monday to Dallas would ensure a victory in that season series and keep the Sharks 12 games up on the second-place Stars, who would have just 23 games left to catch San Jose. You can see my preview of that game on The Hockey Writers.

The Sharks have a chance to mathematically ensure a playoff spot before the trade deadline if they win all four games on the trip and the first game back home against Dallas. While that is not likely, what looked like a trip in which the Sharks would be lucky to get three points now seems like one in which anything less than four would be a disappointment.

Look for San Jose to come away with five, beating Dallas and Ottawa and taking Montreal to a shootout. They will go into March still holding a two-point and two-game lead on the Red Wings and as many points as the Bruins, who they will have a game in hand on.

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