SAN JOSE -- The Sharks have an opportunity to regain control of first place in the Pacific Division on Thursday when they host the Anaheim Ducks in what captain Joe Thornton agreed was the biggest game of the season so far.
And it might have been the message that was delivered in the wake of San Jose's last meeting with Anaheim that led it to be in this position.
Two nights after an impressive 3-1 home victory over the Ducks, San Jose was thumped 6-3 in Anaheim on Dec. 31 in a game that left virtually all players and coaches in disgust. The Sharks allowed three goals in an awful second period and two more to start the third as they fell seven points behind the first-place Ducks.
Sharks coach Todd McLellan, in unwavering terms, challenged his players after that game to think about their roles and what they bring to the team. Since then, the Sharks are 20-9-1, absorbing a long-term injury to Tomas Hertl and a shorter-term injury to Logan Couture, to move into a first-place tie in the division with the Ducks with 97 points.
"It was a wake-up call for some to get them to realize that it's just not coming to the rink every day and you get to keep your job," McLellan said Wednesday. "It was a challenge to certain individuals to figure out what you do and how you can apply that trait on a daily basis and have an impact on the game.
"Some have figured it out better than others. Some are still trying to do it. But I do believe we're a better team because of that loss. Where it takes us from here, it's up to the group in there to decide and to make sure we're pushing forward in a positive way."
After weeks of slowly creeping up on the Ducks, the Sharks -- winners of six straight before Tuesday's 3-2 loss to Florida -- have an opportunity to take over sole possession of first place in the Pacific for the first time since the first week of December.
"We've played well," Thornton said. "We've played some good teams in that stretch, and I think the guys responded well and played some pretty darn good hockey."
The Ducks have struggled this month with just eight points in eight games, allowing the Sharks to quickly gain ground. And Anaheim's power play, like San Jose's in recent weeks, has been scuffling with just two goals in its past 48 opportunities.
The Ducks also got bad news Wednesday as defenseman Cam Fowler was diagnosed with a sprained MCL in his left knee and will be out three to five weeks. Fowler suffered the injury Friday in Colorado and had missed Anaheim's past two games.
If the Sharks win and go on to take the division, it would mean a first- round playoff series likely against either Minnesota or Phoenix. Finishing second in the division would mean an opening-round matchup with Los Angeles, which, on the surface, would appear to be a considerably tougher task.
"To me, it doesn't matter where you finish," Sharks defensemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. "As long as you're playing together and when you go into the playoffs, everybody's playing the right way."
No playoff positions will be decided, nor will a banner be raised to the rafters, after Thursday's game. The Sharks will still have 11 games left after Thursday, including an April 9 date in Anaheim, but a win could set the tone for the stretch run.
"Everybody's aware of where we are and where Anaheim is," Thornton said. "Twelve games left, so tomorrow's the biggest game of the year so far."
"We're getting there, but we just have to be a little bit smart about what we're doing right now," Torres said. "Could I play and just kind of get through it, I think so. But we're trying to stay patient, especially right now. I'm not 100 percent. ... Hopefully just trying to save it, let it heal and get some good work in."
Anaheim (45-17-7) at Sharks (45-18-7), 7:30 p.m. CSNCA