(AP) - A near-perfect homestand catapulted the San Jose Sharks from a fierce fight just to make it into the NHL playoffs to a battle for home-ice advantage in the opening round.
If the Sharks are going to have any hope of winning that race and finishing in the top four in the Western Conference, they are going to need to take the momentum they built during their recent seven-game winning streak and bring it out on the road, where they have had problems all season.
San Jose (20-11-7) left Monday for a four-game trip that begins Tuesday night against Columbus. The Sharks will play six of their final 10 on the road, where they're 6-10-2.
``There's been a certain way we've played since we've been home,' forward Joe Pavelski said. ``It's been a fairly simple game. On the road that's one of the things you focus on, keeping it simple, keeping the crowd out of it. Don't kill yourself with turnovers and stuff. We did that pretty well here while we were at home. Let's try to take that formula on the road.'
The Sharks turned their season around when they followed a win at first-place Anaheim with six straight at home to go from ninth place to fourth in the Western Conference.
Then just when it seemed like they could do no wrong, the Sharks blew a pair of two-goal leads in the homestand finale against Dallas on Sunday and fell 5-4 in a shootout, missing a chance to post the longest perfect homestand in NHL history.
San Jose leaves home in fifth place in the West, one point behind Los Angeles with one game in hand over the Kings. The Sharks have a solid cushion over ninth-place Phoenix, giving them some margin for error in terms of making the playoffs.
``We jumped up a few spots in the standings,' forward Tommy Wingels said. ``We knew this homestand was important. In the big picture we're happy about it but there's a bitter feeling right now. There are things we need to clean up and move forward.'
With defenseman Brent Burns moving up to forward recently to combine for a productive line with Thornton and Marty Havlat, and Pavelski dropping to the third line to add depth, the scoring was spread out during the club's seven-game run, with 12 players getting goals and only Pavelski scoring more than three.
``I think we're playing the right way right now, give or take segments of games where we let it get away from us,' coach Todd McLellan said. ``Right now we're playing the type of hockey that allows us to win consistently. At the beginning of the year, scoring five or six goals a night, we looked like the Globetrotters there for a while ... when everything was going our way.
"We weren't going to continue playing that way. I think we're playing a better brand of game right now. That sets us up for success."
Trade-deadline acquisition Raffi Torres made an immediate impact in his first game with San Jose on Sunday, assisting on two goals and delivering the hard hits than made him reviled in San Jose when he was with the opposition.
He teamed well with Pavelski and TJ Galiardi in what the Sharks hope will be that effective third line that has been lacking in past postseasons.
``He had a lot of energy out there, he was throwing his weight around,' Pavelski said of Torres. ``He got a few pucks to the net. A lot of good things, simple to play with. Goes in straight lines. Obviously, it's big for our team. He brings speed. He can play.'
They'll take on a Blue Jackets club that's seen its playoff hopes take a hit with back-to-back losses. Columbus (16-16-7) is in 12th place in the West, four points out of eighth, after falling 3-0 at home to Minnesota on Sunday.
The Blue Jackets had earned points in 16 of 18 games before a 3-1 defeat at St. Louis on Friday preceded the latest loss. Columbus had won four straight at home and gone 9-0-3 in its past 12 at Nationwide Arena.
"It's a blow,' coach Todd Richards said of the defeat that opened a three-game homestand. ``We know what's ahead of us. The players have talked, we have talked, about the importance of these home games."
Marian Gaborik made his Blue Jackets home debut and recorded four shots on goal while leading Columbus forwards with 21:44 of ice time.
``We have to stay positive,' Gaborik said. ``We have nine games left. We'll do everything we can to be in the hunt.'
While the Blue Jackets have struggled to score in their last two games, they didn't have much trouble in the past two meetings with the Sharks - both in Columbus. The Jackets won 6-2 on Feb. 11 and 6-3 on Feb. 21, 2012.
The Associated Press News Service
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