Sharks turning season around with 8-1-1 run

February, 9, 2011
2/09/11
12:03
PM ET

On the morning of Jan. 14, the San Jose Sharks hit rock bottom after losing their sixth straight game the night before and the standings showed the Dallas Stars with a 10-point lead atop the Pacific Division.

Another division title was the last thing on the collective minds of the stupefied Sharks. Just making the playoffs was in question for last season's Western Conference finalists.

Fast forward to Wednesday, and the sizzling Sharks are now just one point behind the Stars for the division lead. I'm not sure star blueliner Dan Boyle even knew that when I mentioned it to him Tuesday night following his team's 2-0 road win against Washington.

[+] EnlargeAntti Niemi
Steve Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesAntti Niemi has two straight shutouts for the Sharks.

"You know what, I try not to look at the standings," Boyle told ESPN.com over the phone. "We did a lot of damage with the six losses in a row. That was a pretty tough time for our team. We did some damage then, and now with this streak, we're just scratching back up to the surface as far as getting out of it.

"As well as we've played, we know there's 30-odd games to go and we can't afford a long losing streak."

Some folks were more than happy to close the curtains on the Sharks during that six-game losing streak, but San Jose is 8-1-1 in its past 10 contests. And with the Stars dropping five of their past six games, the Pacific race has been reopened, and not just for the Stars and Sharks. The Coyotes are just one point back of the Sharks, the Ducks one point back of the Coyotes, and the surging Kings just two points behind Anaheim. It's the only division in hockey where all five teams have 60 or more points in the standings and with the best shot of seeing all five clubs make the dance.

But back to the Sharks. Just how exactly does one explain a six-game losing streak followed by an 8-1-1 run?

"I really don't know, because we haven't changed one thing as far as X's and O's are concerned," said Boyle, who scored his team's second goal Tuesday night. "Everything's the same. I just think we're finding ways to win. We're executing and we're not letting those one or two mistakes kill us like we did in the first half of the season."

I think the Sharks are back for a number of reasons. Joe Pavelski has stepped it up after a disappointing first half. He was so important for them last spring. I also think the blue-line corps as a whole has improved. Fewer turnovers back there. In goal, Cup-winning goalie Antti Niemi has finally come into his own after struggling to adapt to his new surroundings in the first half. His posted his second straight shutout Tuesday night.

"Yeah, confidence is contagious, individually," Boyle said. "You can see some guys are more confident with the puck, which comes when you're winning hockey games. And certainly our goalie is looking much more confident now than he did in the first half. It's a combination of him making key saves at the key time, and the forwards and D-men are clearing rebounds."

The streaking Sharks take their act to Columbus on Wednesday night, where the Blue Jackets are coming off a huge 4-1 win against a depleted Pittsburgh squad Tuesday night and are 5-2-0 in their past seven games as they try to keep their hopes alive. There's never an easy game in the Western Conference.

To steal a storyline from Washington, perhaps all of San Jose's first-half adversity will pay off come the spring given that the Sharks have walked through the regular season seemingly untouched the past few seasons.

"You don't want to cut it too close,'' Boyle said about the adversity being a blessing. "But maybe for some of the younger guys ... it'll give them experience in terms of some of the things they'll face come playoff time, whether that's being behind in a game or a series. Hopefully."

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