SAN JOSE, California — The San Jose Sharks returned from the All-Star break in playoff position but knowing they have almost no margin for error if they want to make an 11th straight postseason trip.
The Sharks entered Tuesday in second place in the Pacific Division with 56 points in 48 games. But with only a 10-point lead over 12th place Minnesota in the tightly packed Western Conference, the Sharks know they have their work cut out for them down the stretch of the season.
"We're in a dogfight," coach Todd McLellan said. "That's the best way of putting it. My time here with the group we've been comfortably in the playoff picture. There have been a couple other years where we had to battle and we're in the middle of one of those battles or dogfights."
San Jose has made the playoffs for 10 straight seasons — the second-longest active streak in the NHL. But after becoming just the fourth NHL team to lose a best-of-seven series after winning the first three games in the first round last year against Los Angeles, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson talked about the need to take a step back before taking two steps forward.
The team made few offseason additions, choosing instead to give more opportunities to young players. Rookies like Melker Karlsson and Barclay Goodrow have made contributions this season and young veterans like Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have taken on added responsibility.
But more work is needed if the Sharks are going to reach the level of the top teams in the Western Conference.
"We're in a playoff spot right now, so positive," Couture said about his outlook on the team. "I don't know if we've played our best hockey yet. We're still improving, which is also positive. We realize we have a tough road ahead to get to the playoffs."
Consistency has been a major problem for the Sharks, who have seven losses against the bottom six teams in the league but are 6-0-2 against the four first-place teams.
"We're a middle-of-the-pack team right now," McLellan said. "Until we declare ourselves any different and that's through play and wins, that's what we are. We have to take steps forward to overcome that."
The Sharks will begin the post-break stretch on Thursday night against Anaheim without two key players. Defenseman Justin Braun and forward Tommy Wingels both broke bones in their left hands on Jan. 19 against New Jersey. Braun got hurt blocking a shot from Mike Cammalleri and Wingels was injured on a slash by Cammalleri later in the game.
Both players are expected to miss a few more weeks but would like to be back in time to play the outdoor game at Levi's Stadium on Feb. 21 against Los Angeles. Whether that is possible remains to be seen.
The Sharks managed to win their first game without those two key players last Wednesday when they beat Los Angeles 4-2.
"Tommy and Brauny are big parts of our team," Goodrow said. "Tommy can really play anywhere in our lineup — special teams, PK, PP. He's a key guy on our team and with him out, guys like myself are going to need to step up and bring a little more to the table."
The Sharks do expect to get rookie defenseman Mueller back. Mueller has been out with an upper-body injury since returning from the World Junior Championship
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