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Sharks re-establishing themselves as Pacific Division threats

January 16, 2016: San Jose Sharks celebrate their OT win 1:12 into the OT period of the regular season game between the San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars at SAP Center in San Jose CA. Final score- Sharks 4, Stars 3 in OT. (Photo by Allan Hamilton/ICON Sportswire)
(Allan Hamilton/ICON Sportswire)

For most of this season, the Pacific has been viewed as the weakest division overall. And while a case can still be made that it sits fourth in that regard, the relatively level playing field has set the stage for a very competitive second half. Every team — yes, even Edmonton — is still in it. That makes for a lot of meaningful games in March and April.

A few of the clubs have mustered a push up the standings lately, and the San Jose Sharks are right near the top of that list. Following a shootout loss to Ottawa on Monday, they sat even with the Arizona Coyotes for second in the Pacific. The Coyotes had gotten to that point by picking up at least a point in 11 of 12 contests (8-1-3) from Dec. 19 to Jan. 14, but San Jose countered with five straight wins before Monday’s shootout defeat. In a division where six of the seven clubs are bunched together, a winning streak like that is going to pay dividends in a hurry.

So what exactly does the Sharks’ recent surge mean? Are they beginning to right the ship after missing out on the postseason for the first time since 2003 last year?

Looking at the quality of competition is usually a good place to start, though this recent run has pitted San Jose against a wide range of opponents. The winning streak began with an emphatic, 7-0 pounding of the Maple Leafs (not exactly the top of the hockey world right now), but also included a thrilling overtime win over the Dallas Stars — owners of the third-best record in the NHL. Victories over Calgary, Winnipeg and Edmonton offered varying degrees of impressiveness.

One area that has been an undeniable bright spot of late is the offense. Like any other team (except maybe Chicago), the Sharks have experienced the occasional scoring drought. They’ve managed 24 goals over their last six outings though, and they’ve gotten some previously cold players to warm up.

Chief among them is Tomas Hertl. It’s tough to get a read on the young Czech forward, who set the league on fire with 25 points in 37 games as a rookie in 2013-14. Many of those points were of the electrifying variety as well, making his phenomenal talent that much more evident. An injury ended his season prematurely though, and he slogged through last year, to the tune of 13 goals in 82 games.

Hertl started this season off somewhat slowly as well, but he’s picked it up considerably of late. Over these last six games, he’s notched four goals and three assists — including the game-winner against Dallas. In other words, he’s a major reason why San Jose has been moving up.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic, of all people, has been a major contributor on the scoresheet as well. Over his last 14 games, he’s chipped in four goals and nine assists. That accounts for the most prolific offensive stretch of his career, and has him on pace to shatter any and all of his career highs. Pete DeBoer was hoping for more scoring contributions from his blue line and Vlasic has certainly stepped up.

The recent uptick in production from guys like Hertl and Vlasic — in addition to the steady numbers that guys like Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton were already posting — has helped nudge San Jose into the top five in both goals per game and power play efficiency. Putting the puck in the net has been a key component of the Sharks’ success in the past, and it’s coming through for them again now.

Of course, to make any type of serious run, a team has to have a steady presence in the net. Martin Jones began the season on an absolute tear, but he cooled down considerably for a while there. And while he hasn’t been rewriting the record books or anything, he has been doing enough to stack some wins lately. His play in the second half will likely go a long way to determining where San Jose ends up.

So is this recent run sustainable? Or at least a sign of good things to come? They probably shouldn’t expect these kinds of scoring numbers from Vlasic, but they can certainly make the most of it while it lasts. And it is entirely possible that he has found a way to at least enhance his production a little.

Hertl’s situation is a little different. While inconsistency has plagued him at times, his talent is undeniable. And he’s still just 22 years old. If he can become a reliable point producer, he could give this club a really nice jolt up front.

What gives the Sharks a nice edge on a lot of teams is the fact that they have established weapons like Pavelski, Burns, Couture, Marleau and Thornton to lean on. At that point, players like Hertl — or Joel Ward or Tommy Wingels, for that matter — are really only being asked to contribute secondary scoring. And an offense like that can help take some pressure off of Jones between the pipes.

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