There probably was a time this season when the San Jose Sharks weren't on top of the Western Conference standings. It's just hard to picture it; like trying to remember hip-hop before Auto-Tune.
That could change tonight with a regulation win from the Detroit Red Wings, who skate into the Shark Tank with 68 points in 44 games to San Jose's 69 in 43. Detroit is on an 8-0-1 roll; the Sharks aren't exactly slumping at 6-2-2 in their last 10, but lost at home for the first time in regulation against the Calgary Flames this week.
Of course, none of that will play on the teams' minds as much as the 6-0 curb-stomping the Sharks received from the Wings in their last game on Dec. 18. Which, of course, follows years of postseason dominance from Detroit.
Injured Jeremy Roenick said his Sharks need to start working through their mental obstacles when it comes to the Red Wings. From the Mercury News:
"Our records are very similar in terms of wins and losses," Roenick said. "But it's important now that we start to get the mental edge, so that when you do get into head-to-head matches, you have the confidence of winning. ... When you can't beat a team it sticks in your head."
The Sharks are having an outstanding season, and it isn't April or May. But is there any way to avoid having this game be a must-win for San Jose?
Connecting you to your favorite North Texas sports teams as well as sports news around the globe.
There will never be equal footing in the regular season between these teams. There are fatigue concerns for Detroit tonight and injury concerns -- no Rob Blake tonight for the Sharks -- for San Jose. But in Ray Ratto's Valentine to the Flames this week in the San Francisco Chronicle, he spelled out one level of importance for today's game:
The team that draws Calgary has a far smaller chance of reaching the Finals, making the race to win the top seed more vital than usual. And thus making Saturday's game with Detroit the Sharks' most significant regular-season game to date - not for bragging rights, or psychological edges, but because the points matter, even in January.
It's impossible to divorce psychology from these games. The Sharks are coming off a bad loss, and its measuring stick is in town.
It is, however, just another in a series of exams for this San Jose team in its evaluation process. Mike Chen from Battle of California really captures that for the Sharks:
Of course, the first Wings/Sharks game was a statement game too. As was the second game. As was the game after that. As was the game after the beat-down in Calgary. So the whole idea of a statement game seems to be to assign it to the game that follows something bad.
And that's the thing with being a Sharks fan, at least this season. It just doesn't matter how good the regular season seems to be going because you're going to have those awful nerves that warn you it'll fall apart at any second. It's like having that annoying drunk uncle at your wedding who's on good behavior but you're just waiting for him to hit that tipping point where all hell breaks loose.
Does tonight's game hold a little more oomph than previous statement games. If you're measuring the amount of adversity going into it, I'd say yes. The past ten games have been an up-and-down journey, and while the overall effort was there against Calgary, poor decision making and bad habits crept into the fold.
If you get the feeling there's more on the line tonight for the Sharks than the Wings ... well, welcome to Detroit vs. San Jose. The champions vs. the contenders. The valedictorians against the underachievers' club. The teacher vs. the student behind the bench.
The Sharks are on a perpetual quest for affirmation in this rivalry, which makes tonight's game both essential and, in a weird way, pointless.
Essential in the sense that it's a conference game between rivals, and the Sharks could use a boost. Over the last few weeks, they've blown the doors of some beatable opponents, averaging 4.3 goals per game against teams like the St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Islanders, Dallas Stars and the Luongo-less Vancouver Canucks.
But against teams like the Minnesota Wild, New York Rangers, Calgary Flames and Detroit Red Wings, that average dips to 1.8 goals per game.
There are a few trouble spots for San Jose. Chen called out "Marc-Edouard Vlasic (who looked terrified on the power play) and Joe Pavelski (who forgot how to shoot)" in his blog. A win over Detroit would ease those ills ... or at least distract fans from them for a moment.
But the game is also rather pointless in the grand scheme, because it's still all about the playoffs for these franchises. Mike Babcock said it best to the Detroit News: "The first time you ever see anyone on equal ground is at playoff time ... That's the facts. You can't get all caught up in 'Oh, it's a four-point game,' it's this and it's that.
"But that doesn't mean you can't get excited about it. They'll be excited to play us. We'll be excited to play them. It should be fun."
This rivalry really ignites in Game 1 of their Western Conference series.
Or whenever Claude Lemieux arrives for San Jose, of course ...