The San Jose Sharks have five games left to track down the Anaheim Ducks for first place in the Pacific Division.
If that doesn’t happen, their first-round playoff series will likely be against the Los Angeles Kings, which would make Thursday night’s meeting in San Jose the final regular-season tussle before the stakes go up.
The Sharks (48-20-0) could certainly use a confidence booster against the Kings, who eliminated them in the Western Conference semifinals a season ago and have won three of four meetings this season.
"We’ve got five left and you want to be playing well before the postseason," Sharks center Joe Thornton told the team’s official website. "Our goal is to win all five and see where it goes."
The stingy Kings (45-26-6) have limited the Sharks to six goals in those four meetings, including a 1-0 victory in San Jose on Jan. 27.
Anze Kopitar scored in the second period and Jonathan Quick made 23 saves to shut the Sharks out for the second time in his last five starts against them, a 4-1-0 stretch with a 1.20 goals-against average and .950 save percentage.
San Jose was more effective in the offensive zone in Tuesday’s 5-4 home win over Edmonton. After blowing a 3-1 lead and falling behind 4-3 early in the third period, Brent Burns and Patrick Marleau scored to help the Sharks snap a two-game skid.
Defenseman Dan Boyle scored in a third straight game and has a five-game point streak. Top scorer Joe Pavelski added two assists to give him eight points on a four-game streak, while Burns has six points during a four-game run.
But it was the defensive-zone letdown that had their attention after the game.
"I still think our team looks lethargic," coach Todd McLellan said. "Not as much physically but mentally. Some of the coverages that we’re supposed to have, the face-off execution, picking up the right people. We’re there but we’re not really getting it done.
"I think this week’s important for us. We’ll get a little bit of practice time, some opportunities to rest and then get ready again. Right now we’re still in a fight, which I think is good for us, to stay focused and have that battling mentality."
Goaltender Antti Niemi has now allowed four goals in consecutive starts after not allowing more than three in 11 straight.
He knows the Kings well, having started 14 games against them since the start of last season and going 6-7-1 with a 2.56 GAA in those contests.
The Kings tuned up for him with a 4-0 home win over Phoenix on Wednesday to secure a playoff berth, but no corks were popped.
"With the evolution of this team, maybe four or five years ago, this was a big deal," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "Now it’s part of the process. There’s nothing to celebrate."
Quick needed to make just 17 saves to preserve the shutout, improving to 6-1-0 with a 1.68 GAA since March 20.
In front of him, Tanner Pearson, Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter and Kopitar scored. Kopitar has six points on a four-game streak, while trade-deadline acquisition Marian Gaborik added an assist to give him six points on a five-game streak.
Nine points back of the Sharks, the Kings don’t have anywhere to go in the standings, but that won’t make them ease off in their last five games.
"Regardless of clinching, that doesn’t change the way we need to play," defenseman Alec Martinez said. "You’ve got to be playing playoff hockey going into the playoffs. We’ve got to keep honing our game."