SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The San Jose Sharks were sailing along just two weeks ago, making a strong push for the top spot in the Western Conference to begin what they hoped would be a long playoff run.
Now with just more than a week left in the regular season, they’re struggling just to find a win and to hold on to home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The Sharks head into a showdown weekend against the other top two teams in the Pacific Division having lost seven games in a row for the first time in more than six years and running out of time to fix their problems.
“I feel like we’re concerned,” forward Logan Couture said. “We realize where we’re at this year, and how important this push is going to be coming up. How important it should have been the last seven games. You can’t go backward. You can’t change what’s already happened.”
The Sharks were in prime position after beating Minnesota and Winnipeg on back-to-back nights on the road March 11-12, taking over the top spot in the West following a six-game winning streak.
But they haven’t won since and haven’t even held a lead in the last three losses. They allowed three goals in the opening 11 minutes of a 5-4 loss to Chicago on Thursday night.
“Every game recently we’re just losing and hunting down,” forward Tomas Hertl said. “We have to figure out a way to start early and start with the lead because it’s better to play with the lead than hunting it down every game.”
The skid has coincided with some key injuries to major players. Star defenseman Erik Karlsson went down with a groin injury on Feb. 26 in Boston and hasn’t played since. The Sharks did just fine without him, winning the next six games.
But then defenseman Radim Simek went down with a torn ACL in the win at Winnipeg and captain Joe Pavelski has missed five straight games with a lower-body injury.
Pavelski is expected back this weekend and the Sharks are hopeful that Karlsson will be able to return before the end of the regular season.
“I think we have time,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “We have two pretty good players sitting in the stands. Those guys will help. You can’t play behind in this game every night. I think that’s the one thing. If we can get that fixed I think the rest of the stuff will kind of roll into place.”
The major problem for the Sharks has been on the defensive end, where too many turnovers and breakdowns are leading to odd-man rushes and goalies Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have been unable to come up with key saves at big moments.
San Jose has allowed 31 goals during the skid, including at least four in six of the seven games. That was the problem against the Blackhawks, when two early penalties led to a 5-on-3 goal that started the three-goal barrage early. A fluky deflection proved to be the game-winner after the Sharks climbed back to tie the game at 4 in the second period.
“Scoring goals really hasn’t been an issue with our team this year,” Couture said. “We’ve scored I think the top three or top five most goals in the league. It’s giving up goals, giving up easy goals, goals at the wrong times. Taking away our momentum. We score, we tie it up at 4, and then give one up a couple shifts later. It’s goals like that that we want to avoid.”
The skid has left the Sharks six points behind first-place Calgary with five games to go heading into Friday night. While catching the Flames will be a long shot, San Jose also must worry about holding off Vegas, which is only five points behind in the race for home-ice advantage in the first round.
Things could get more precarious if the Sharks don’t fix their problems this weekend when they host the Golden Knights and Calgary in back-to-back games.
“We worked awful hard for six, seven months to put ourselves in a spot where we have a chance over the next week to have home ice in the first round,” DeBoer said. “We’ve got to work to get that done.”