Hawks, Sharks put clash in perspective
In a season that passes in a blur thanks to the Olympic break, these games pass by all too quickly: a clash of the two best teams in the Western Conference, and arguably -- with all due respect to the Washington Capitals -- the two best teams in the NHL.
But talk to players from the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks and they'll tell you Thursday's game is important on a number of levels, but remains about keeping things in perspective; another day at the office.
With a win, the Sharks could open a four-point lead in the West. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, could pull into a tie in points and jump ahead by two victories if they can steal another game in San Jose in the final of four meetings between the two conference powers.
Chicago won the first meeting 4-3 in a shootout in mid-November and thumped the Sharks 7-2 in San Jose just over a week later. The Sharks earned a measure of redemption with a 3-2 win in Chicago before Christmas and would like to even the series at home Thursday.
The memory of that 7-2 rout still lingers for the Sharks.
There are the games you look at as a benchmark, Sharks center Joe Pavelski told ESPN.com.
"And [Thursday] would be one of those games," he said. "The last time they were here, they beat us pretty good."
At the end of the day, the team that ends up ahead of the other when the regular season ends in mid-April will almost certainly enjoy the top seed in the conference throughout the playoffs and quite possibly be the NHL's top regular-season team. As of Thursday morning, the red-hot Caps were two points behind San Jose and tied with Chicago with 76 points.
Which is where the issue of perspective comes into play for both teams.
The Sharks, of course, are cognizant of the fact that finishing the regular season ahead of the pack guarantees exactly nothing. They were the Presidents' Trophy winners last season, finishing five points ahead of Detroit in the West and one point ahead of the Eastern Conference's top team, Boston. The Sharks were then dispatched in six games by the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the first round. See ya. Thanks for coming out again.
If anything, one would imagine the Sharks would be in a hurry to get back to the playoffs, to rush through the final 29 games of this regular season in an effort to begin the task of redeeming themselves after another disappointing playoff turn. But Pavelski said they're still aware of the importance of finishing first and earning home ice, even if it didn't matter much last spring.
"You have to play every night," he said.
If you don't, you can find yourself falling down the standings pretty quickly.
Just ask the Calgary Flames, who at one point were challenging the Sharks and Blackhawks at the top of the standings. As of Thursday, the Flames are eighth, desperately hanging on to a playoff spot.
"It hasn't really entered my mind, looking ahead too much," Pavelski said.
The Sharks, as they did a year ago, will spend the last third of the season trying to get their game to the point that they will be able to elevate their game the way championship teams do come April. "We haven't raised our game when it's been needed," Pavelski said.
Although the Sharks and Blackhawks have followed different paths in recent seasons, their mindset is much the same at this stage of the season.
The Blackhawks just missed the playoffs with a youthful squad two seasons ago. After Joel Quenneville took over for Denis Savard as coach early last season, Chicago advanced to the Western Conference finals before losing to Detroit in five games.
Many believe they have the stuff to win their first Cup since 1961, the longest drought in the NHL. But as defenseman Duncan Keith pointed out in advance of Thursday's game, the Blackhawks have really done little, despite the heady praise handed to them the past couple of years.
"We really haven't accomplished anything yet," he said. "The biggest part is not taking anything for granted."
That is a thought process the Sharks are familiar with.
"There's a job to be done here," Pavelski said. "We did fail last year, and we did fail pretty big."
Beyond the obvious implications of winning or losing Thursday night, the two teams also represent an interesting dynamic with the Olympics looming in a little more than two weeks. The Sharks will send an NHL-high eight players to Vancouver, including four members of the host Canadian team. The Blackhawks have six players, including three more Canadians.
Keith is one of them, and said it's a simple process to keep his job as a Blackhawk and his place as a Canadian Olympian straight. "A lot of it just comes down to being professional about it," he said.
Right now, the Sharks are the enemies. In two weeks, players like Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle and Patrick Marleau will be Keith's teammates, and he will go through a wall for them in pursuit of the gold.
"Right now, though, it's all about being with the Blackhawks," Keith said.
Pavelski will also be facing off against soon-to-be teammates with the U.S. Olympic team, and a possible linemate in Patrick Kane.
"You think about it a little bit, no doubt," Pavelski said of the Olympics.
As for wondering about whom his linemates may be, Pavelski admits his daydreams have been bigger-picture.
"It's always thinking about winning," Pavelski said.
Now there's something both teams can agree on.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.