(Originally published at Sports Radio Service)
The San Jose Sharks fell behind the Anaheim Ducks again with Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. While other teams are in a race to make the playoffs, the Sharks are in a race to not face the Los Angeles Kings in the first round. That would be a good thing to avoid, but the Sharks’ schedule won’t make it easy.
Even with a home ice advantage, the Sharks could anticipate a physically gruelling first round if they face the Kings. Los Angeles does present an uncommonly heavy-hitting adversary, but playoff hockey is rough no matter who the opponent is. Minnesota, Phoenix or Dallas will come ready play hard in their own way. The Sharks’ particular history with the Kings carries extra baggage but history lives only in our heads. If the Sharks face someone else in the first round, they could lose as easily, especially if they underestimate their opponent just because it isn’t Los Angeles.
The Ducks finish the regular season playing five of eight games against teams in the bottom third of the standings. The Sharks play three of six games against top eight teams to finish. One of the other games is against the Phoenix Coyotes, who may well be fighting for a playoff spot to the last game. The race against the Ducks won’t be easy for the Sharks to win.
On the other hand, whether they catch the Ducks or not, the Sharks will have a chance to elevate their game because they are facing such good competition. That could benefit them no matter who they play in the first round. The Sharks, like many good teams, can stumble in “should win” situations. The risk of injury or fatigue could outweigh the mental conditioning benefits of tough games, but over a span of six games the physical wear and tear should not be very different.
The advantage of avoiding the Kings in the first round is a real one, but ultimately the Sharks will have to be the better team if they want to advance to the finals. Maybe ramping up to the playoffs with a rigorous stretch against top opponents will do the trick.