One could make the argument that home-ice advantage is more important in the NHL than in the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball (they don't have ice, but you get the drift). That's because home NHL teams actually have a schematic advantage in that they get the last line change off a stoppage of play. Thus the coach can manipulate matchups if need be.
That brings me to the perplexing San Jose Sharks, who entered Monday third in the Pacific Division but just three points behind first-place Los Angeles. Are the Sharks good enough to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time? Maybe. Goaltender Martin Jones has been a brilliant offseason trade acquisition. He was formerly Jonathan Quick's backup in Los Angeles, and the Kings thought so highly of Jones that they purposefully traded him to the Boston Bruins this summer to keep him out of the Western Conference. Except the Bruins then turned around and traded Jones days later to the Sharks. Jones is 34-18-4 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. He has gone seven games in a row without giving up more than two goals.
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San Jose certainly is a good enough road team to win the Cup. It is 25-9-3 away from home, the most road wins in the NHL. But what's up with that 13-15-3 record at home? The Sharks haven't had a losing home record since 1997-98. Over the past 25 years, the Stanley Cup winner with the fewest home victories (not including shortened seasons) was the 1997 Red Wings with 20. The swept the Flyers in the Cup Finals. The Stanley Cup finalist over that period with the fewest regular-season home wins was the 2002 Carolina Hurricanes, who were 15-13-11-2 at home. Ties and OT losses were separate categories then.
The Sharks start a stretch of seven of their next eight at home against Boston on Tuesday, an NBC Sports Network national TV game. San Jose is +700 at Bovada to win the Western Conference.
Big Loss For Penguins
Pittsburgh's chances at winning the Cup took a big hit Saturday when star winger Evgeni Malkin was ruled out 6-8 weeks with an upper-body injury (they never tell you what the true injury is in the NHL). Malkin left Friday's win in Columbus following a collision with Blue Jackets defenseman Dalton Prout in the second period. Malkin has 27 goals and 31 assists this season. Since making his first postseason appearance in 2007, Malkin has averaged 1.10 points per playoff game. The only player with a higher number since then is teammate Sidney Crosby at 1.18.
Malkin missed 10 consecutive games last month, during which time the Penguins went 5-4-1. Their all-time record when he has been injured is 71-45-9 following Sunday's win at the New York Rangers.
This Week's Games To Watch
Tampa Bay at Toronto, Tuesday: Why mention this one? After all, the Lightning are one of the best teams in the NHL and the Leafs the worst. Well, it's Tampa's final game in Toronto this season, and you know the media and fans up there will be going gaga over Bolts star Steven Stamkos as the Leafs will be going heavy after the Toronto native in free agency this offseason if the Lightning allow him to get there, which now seems likely. The Leafs reportedly are ready to offer him $12 million a year, which would make Stamkos the highest-paid player in league history. The Lightning aren't going that high. Stamkos would be a Canadian legend if he returned home and led the Leafs to a Cup. That will be the No. 1 offseason story in the NHL. Tampa is 3-0 against Toronto this season. The Leafs are +160 underdogs here.
NY Rangers at Anaheim, Wednesday: It's New York's only visit of the season to Anaheim. The Blueshirts won the first matchup 3-2 in overtime at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 22. Mats Zuccarello scored a power-play goal at 2:37 of the extra session. That was when both teams were really struggling. This could be a very physical game as there were two fights in that first meeting. New York got back winger Rick Nash and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist this weekend from injury but lost both games, 3-2 in overtime at Detroit and 5-3 at home against the Penguins. This starts a three-game trip through California.
Chicago at Winnipeg, Friday: First meeting between these teams since the Blackhawks acquired forward Andrew Ladd from the Jets around the Feb. 29 trade deadline. Winnipeg got 21-year-old forward Marko Dano, who is considered a pretty good prospect, a first-round draft pick this June and another conditional pick. Solid return for Winnipeg after Ladd turned down a six-year extension earlier in the season and will hit unrestricted free agency. Ladd has two goals and two assists in six games with the Hawks. The Blackhawks lead the season series 2-1 but both wins were in Chicago. This starts a four-game homestand for the Jets.
NY Islanders at Dallas, Saturday: If you like offensive hockey, this matchup is for you as both are among the Top 5 scoring teams in the NHL. That showed in the first meeting, a 6-5 Islanders home win on Jan. 3. Kyle Okposo and Cal Clutterbuck each had two goals for the Isles, who trailed 2-1 in the first period before scoring the next four goals and holding on. Valeri Nichushkin had two goals for Dallas. There aren't many NHL games where I'd recommend the over total, but this would be one of them. The Islanders have lost No. 1 goaltender Jaroslav Halak for 6-8 weeks with a lower-body injury, meaning he likely misses the start of the playoffs. Thomas Greiss has played pretty well in net this year for the Isles but has less than one full game of playoff experience. Halak has 30 games of postseason play under his belt.
Boston at Los Angeles, Saturday: Could see this matchup replayed come June in the Stanley Cup Finals. This will be a chance for some major payback for Boston as it was totally embarrassed on home ice by the Kings on Feb. 9, 9-2. Nine different players scored for the Kings, including Milan Lucic, who was traded from Boston last summer (in the Jones deal). That was not a popular deal among Bruins fans. It remains an NHL high in goals scored by any team and Los Angeles also had a season-best 57 shots on net. That was the most shots against Boston since Detroit had 57 on March 18, 1965. Tuukka Rask gave up five goals on 32 shots before being pulled. It was the most goals the Bruins allowed at home in nine years.
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