SAN JOSE – Nearly halfway through the season, no Western Conference team has played fewer games against its own conference and more against the Eastern Conference than the San Jose Sharks. In fact, San Jose has played more games against Eastern opponents (20) than Western (17), on its way to holding down first place in the Pacific Division at the start of the New Year.
That's about to change in the month of January. San Jose will play 15 of its next 16 games against teams in the Pacific and Central divisions. Saturday's game against Los Angeles was the first of nine straight against Western Conference opponents.
The competition for playoff spots is about to intensify between teams that are in direct competition with one another.
"The importance of the game ramps up here another level, but I think we're excited about the stretch run here," coach Pete DeBoer said.
Joel Ward said: "I think it will be good for us. Those are the teams you've got to beat to climb up the standings."
So far the Sharks have found more success against the Eastern Conference, going 14-6-0. They've been much more average against the West, with a 9-7-1 mark, including a 7-5-1 record in their own division.
Those barely-above-.500 marks are going to have to improve if the Sharks want to remain in a comfortable position over the second half, although Justin Braun didn't put much weight into the incongruence in the team's record among conferences.
"I'm not sure what the reason is for that. Who knows? But, we've got to really bear down on these divisional games and conference games," Braun said. "Keep that separation."
The general sentiment among most hockey people is that in the west, there are heavier, more physical grind-it-out teams that like to cycle the puck in the offensive end. The east, conversely, has more speed and skill, and a greater ability to score off the rush.
But those days are changing, according to Ward and DeBoer – two guys who were in the Eastern Conference less than two years ago.
"I think before I kind of felt being in the East, the West was big bodies, cycling. Now I feel like everybody is playing the same style," said Ward, who played four seasons in Washington. "It's just getting pucks out of your zone quick, getting into the opposition as quickly [as you can], and getting on the forecheck."
DeBoer, who coached the Devils and Panthers before joining the Sharks, said: "I don't see a noticeable difference like maybe you saw five or six years ago. I think the gap has closed. The quality and the depth arguably in the east might be better, but I don't see the same real difference in style of play or things that you noticeably saw five years ago."
The biggest benefit to the Sharks having played so many games against Eastern Conference opponents is that the majority of their cross-country road games are behind them. They have just one more trek to the Eastern Time zone, playing four straight games in Buffalo, Boston, Philadelphia and New Jersey in the second week of February.
Until then, the furthest east they'll go is Winnipeg on Jan. 24. It sets up well for them to get plenty of rest and practice time that has been hard to come by the first three months of the season – each of which has featured a road trip through Eastern Conference cities.
"The fact that we're not traveling is welcomed," DeBoer said.
Now they just have to utilize that extra time spent on the practice ice or in their own beds in games against teams they'll have to beat.
"We'll find a way to really dial it in here coming down the stretch," Ward said.