SAN JOSE -- Look at the NHL standings. The Sharks are where you'd expect them to be with their 10-1-2 record, first place in the Pacific Division.

But there's something else in those standings that may defy expectations. As good as San Jose has been playing, it has not been able to distance itself from the Pacific pack.

Anaheim Ducks? One point behind San Jose. Saturday night's foe, the Phoenix Coyotes, are two points back. Vancouver Canucks? A point behind Phoenix. Los Angeles Kings? A point behind Vancouver.

"It is an absolute beast," ESPN hockey analyst Scott Burnside says of the Pacific in a video on the network's website. "Right now, no question, the toughest road to travel is through that Pacific Division."

These things can go in cycles. But the Sharks' Patrick Marleau has a theory as to why the Pacific teams have been consistently strong in recent years, and it's tied to the fact the four U.S.-based teams are in nontraditional markets.

"In the markets that we're in, you need to have winning teams," Marleau said. "And the general managers that are in this division seem to do a really good job of bringing in some good players, some good talent."

Two of the teams chasing the Sharks in the Pacific are doing it with the help of new talent this season. Anaheim has turned to rookie goalie Frederik Andersen, who is 3-0 as an injury replacement. Veteran forward Mike Ribeiro has added a creative element to the Coyotes.

But Vancouver and Los Angeles are relying on high-end talent that has been there awhile. Twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin lead the Canucks in scoring, and the team rewarded them Friday with four-year, $28 million contract extensions. Anze Kopitar, whose overtime goal sank the Sharks on Wednesday night, leads the Kings in scoring.

Establishing divisional pecking orders in the NHL can be tricky.

So far this season, competition between the two conferences has been pretty one-sided, as the West held a 54-23-9 edge over the East at the beginning of play on Friday.

Pacific teams are 9-4-1 in head-to-head meetings with the Central Division, but four of those wins were not settled in 60 minutes.

The Sharks are well aware they don't have much breathing room right now despite their hot start.

"It's pretty amazing," Dan Boyle said. "As well as we've played, you go on a little losing streak and all of a sudden you're no longer in that top echelon. It's pretty remarkable that so many teams in our division have gotten off to the start they have."

Boyle said franchises in the Pacific don't have the option of maintaining the status quo from year to year because the other teams seem to be getting better annually.

"It's just organizations and teams not standing pat, realizing that with the teams in our division, it's going to be a tough playoff spot to make," Boyle said.

Of San Jose's first 13 games, five have been against Pacific opponents, and the Sharks are 4-0-1. Seven of San Jose's 13 games in November involve division foes.

The new playoff format adopted by the NHL that seeds teams within each division for the first two rounds gives Pacific games added importance. But coach Todd McLellan said it's too early in the season for players to be focusing on that.

"In fact," McLellan said Friday, "one of the players asked me today, 'How does the playoff system work?' They don't know right now. They're just playing hockey. They look at the stats and the standings and all that, but they're not thinking 82 games ahead. They're thinking about tomorrow."

  • McLellan said Friday that Boyle will be in the lineup against Phoenix if the medical staff gives its OK. The Sharks defenseman said he felt ready to go after missing seven games after the hit from behind that knocked him unconscious Oct. 15 at St. Louis.

  • The Sharks could have a new look on their top two forward lines as McLellan had Marty Havlat skating with Marleau and Logan Couture, while Tyler Kennedy was alongside Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl. The switch became likely with Matt Nieto's probable return to the third line after missing two games with a hand injury.

  • Two Sharks earned recognition Friday from the NHL, as goalie Antti Niemi was named third star for October and Hertl was chosen rookie of the month.

    For more on the Sharks, see David Pollak's Working the Corners blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/sharks. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/PollakOnSharks.

    SATURDAY'S GAME
    Phoenix (9-3-2) at Sharks (10-1-2), 7:30 p.m. CSNCA

    Getty images
    Counterclockwise, from top: Henrik Sedin (Canucks), Anze Kopitar (Kings), Frederik Andersen (Ducks) and Mike Ribeiro (Coyotes) help make the Pacific Division perhaps the toughest in all of the NHL.