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Sharks’ Martin Jones earns first shutout of season over Kings

Sharks’ win streak has unlikely playoff spot within reach originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The Sharks haven’t been this close to a playoff spot in over a month.

Thanks to San Jose’s 3-0 win over the rival Los Angeles Kings on Friday night at Staples Center, the Sharks (16-16-4; 36 points) are three points back of the West Division’s fourth and final postseason berth for the first time since Feb. 23. They also have a game in hand on the fourth-place Arizona Coyotes (17-15-5), with two matchups remaining in April and another pair in May to close out the regular season.

A lot can change between now and May 8, as evidenced by the Sharks falling as many as 11 points back of the division’s last playoff spot during the preceding 37 days. For now, at least, San Jose is in the postseason hunt.

“It’s great,” goaltender Martin Jones said in a postgame video conference, shortly after stopping all 30 shots he faced Friday. “We put ourselves behind the eight-ball a little bit, but the way we’ve been playing, we could go on a little bit of a run here and see where we’re at in a couple of weeks.”

The Sharks have now won three games in a row, and five of their last seven. They’re also 9-7-2 dating back to the start of March. Jones is 7-2-2 with a .929 save percentage over that span, and he picked up his first shutout of the season Friday. In 12 starts in January and February, Jones was 6-5-1 with an .877 save percentage.

Jones has given the Sharks the goaltending they’ve needed to make a standings push, and the depth that’s critical to sustaining it is starting to emerge. Thanks to Rudolfs Balcers’ return from an upper-body injury earlier this week, the Sharks have an effective second line again.

Balcers, Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier formed a strong trio in February, before Hertl’s stint on the COVID-19 list. Coach Bob Boughner re-united the line in the Sharks’ win Monday over the Minnesota Wild, and San Jose has reaped the benefits. In 38:04 of 5-on-5 ice time in the last three games, the trio has a 59.04 corsi-for percentage, 67.79 expected goals-for percentage and 70.59 percent high-danger chances-for percentage, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The Kings had no answer for the Sharks’ second line Friday, and none for Meier, especially. He broke a 10-game goal-scoring drought with a second-period snipe, pumping a team-leading eight shots on goal. Meier also led the Sharks in shot attempts (12) and scoring chances (seven), per Natural Stat Trick.

“Tonight, honestly, he had eight shots on net, I think — he could’ve had three or four [goals] tonight,” Boughner said of Meier. “I thought that he was a threat every time he got on the ice. I think games like that will help him with his confidence. … From what we see tonight, if he’s playing that way and he’s that confident, he can be dangerous. It was good to see.”

Most critically for the Sharks, they have a perfect storm at their backs. During a condensed, 56-game season in which only 14 teams have won (at least) as many games as they’ve lost, San Jose has remained in striking distance.

The division has played out pretty much as expected, with two clear-cut favorites (the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights), an obvious third-best team (the Kirill Kaprizov-led Minnesota Wild, rather than the seemingly sundowning St. Louis Blues) and everybody else aiming for fourth.

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The Sharks are right in that mix, and they have an opportunity to separate themselves ahead of the April 12 trade deadline. San Jose’s next four games are all against LA and the Anaheim Ducks, and the Sharks are a combined 8-1-1 against their Southern California rivals.

They’re also just a combined 8-15-3 against the rest of the division, raising serious doubts about the Sharks’ ability to hold on to said spot beyond the deadline, when their schedule against the Kings and Ducks is all but wrapped up. Plus, during a season that general manager Doug Wilson has called a “reset,” it’s fair to ask if San Jose would be better off with a lottery pick than an uphill battle in the first round of the playoffs against Colorado or Vegas.

Those questions can wait at least another day, when the Sharks will face the Kings again at Staples Center. For now, Jones and Co. are just enjoying the ride.

“Winning’s gonna do that,” Jones said in an interview with television broadcasters Randy Hahn and Bret Hedican. “It’s great. The boys are having fun. We’re playing well together, so hopefully we can keep it rolling.”

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