BY GREG BEACHAM
The Associated Press
SAN JOSE, Calif. – When the Western Conference was turned upside-down, the San Jose Sharks ended up on top – just as Ron Wilson predicted.
Well, the San Jose coach didn’t really know the highest four seeds in the West playoff bracket would lose in an unprecedented first-round flop at the top.
About two weeks ago, Wilson simply suggested the improbable scenario when the Sharks clinched fifth place. Now that Wilson’s dream scheme has been realized, the road to the Stanley Cup finals has been routed through San Jose’s Shark Tank for the second straight postseason.
“We’ve been pushing it hard down the stretch to win as many games as possible and to get as high a seed as possible, because you never know what can happen in this league,” Wilson said last month as the Sharks won eight of their last nine regular-season games.
“With the way the Western Conference is right now, the way it’s so competitive, if we finish fifth and there are four upsets, we’d have home ice among the 5-6-7-8 (seeds).”
When the first round ended with Anaheim’s upset victory over Calgary on Wednesday night, the fifth-seeded Sharks learned they’ll start their next series – and the one after that if they can get there – in their teal home jerseys. After a full week of rest and practice thanks to a five-game victory over Nashville, San Jose will host the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers on Sunday and Monday.
The Sharks, who have won 12 of their last 14 games overall, will have sellout crowds behind them at the Tank. They’ve lost at home in regulation just two times in three months, capped by two home wins over the Predators in the first round.
“I’m glad we worked so hard down the stretch, because it’s put us in a great position,” forward Scott Thornton said. “All the sacrifices to get into the playoffs got home ice for us. Obviously, we didn’t expect this result, but we love being at home in front of our fans.”
Wilson believes the reason for all the home-ice upsets is obvious: While the top four teams in the West mostly coasted into the postseason, the bottom clubs were in a six-team fight for four playoff berths and the most favorable seedings until the final day of the season.
“I do believe what you do at the end of the season can really help you,” Wilson said. “The top four teams, with maybe the exception of Calgary, were anchored and not slipping anywhere, but they weren’t battling like we had to. It was the same with Edmonton and Anaheim and Colorado.
“Detroit had nothing to go for. Dallas was resting guys, and Nashville was a little banged up. … That steels you up for when you’re playing teams that had nothing to play for.”
Wilson’s theory also holds in the East – but the top teams got the benefit of fast finishes. Ottawa and Carolina were locked in a fight for the No. 1 seeding until the final days, while New Jersey fought to hold off two Atlantic Division competitors.
Along with Buffalo, which hit the postseason on a five-game winning streak, the East’s top four seeds are all headed to the second round.
Of course, home ice doesn’t guarantee success – particularly in San Jose. The Sharks were the home team in the 2004 conference finals against Calgary – but they lost all three home matches in a six-game defeat.
“Everybody remembers two years ago and how (home ice) doesn’t mean much if you don’t play,” said Tom Preissing, whose six first-round assists put him in third place among defensemen in postseason scoring. “We have to make sure the crowd doesn’t get us overly excited and take us out of what we want to do.”