After a franchise-record winning streak moved the San Jose Sharks to the top of the Pacific Division, their stifling defense has allowed them to tighten their grip on the lead.
Looking to build on one of their most impressive defensive efforts of the season, the Sharks visit the slumping Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday.
San Jose (45-21-9) trailed both Anaheim and Dallas in the Pacific before winning 14 of 15 contests to open a five-point lead over the Ducks and a 10-point edge on the third-place Stars.
The Sharks, who are trying for their fourth straight victory since their franchise-record 11-game winning streak ended March 16, defeated Anaheim 2-1 on Friday. Jeremy Roenick and Joe Thornton scored for San Jose, which has seen eight of its last nine games decided by one goal.
“This team has a lot of confidence right now,” said Thornton, who has an NHL-leading 64 assists and 85 points - tied for seventh in the league. “(Defense) is one thing we take pride in, and it says something about our team.”
The Sharks also outshot Anaheim 43-13 for the largest such margin in San Jose’s franchise history. Most impressively, they held Anaheim without a shot in the third period.
“That was an unbelievable job, offensively and defensively,” Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. “We had the puck, it must have been 75 percent of the time, and if they did get the puck in our end, we were aggressive. We jumped them, didn’t give them any time. It was just a great overall effort.”
San Jose, which has clinched its fourth straight playoff berth and ninth in 10 seasons, has the second-best record in the league and is seven points back of NHL-leading Detroit (106).
The Sharks have seven games remaining, including two against Phoenix (36-34-6). Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov has posted three shutouts to help San Jose gain a 4-1-1 edge in the season series with the Coyotes.
He lost the most recent matchup, though, making 23 saves in a 5-3 defeat at Phoenix on Jan. 15. It was the Sharks’ first loss at Jobing.com Arena since an 8-0 defeat on Dec. 30, 2006.
The Sharks, who are a league-leading 26-8-3 on the road, have won nine straight as visitors - one win shy of the franchise record set Nov. 14-Dec. 31.
Phoenix, meanwhile, is among the NHL’s weakest teams at home, going 16-19-4 at Jobing.com Arena this season.
The Coyotes (36-34-6) have dropped three straight on home ice and six of their last eight there, including a 2-1 defeat to Anaheim on Saturday. Ed Jovanovski scored and Ilya Bryzgalov made 13 saves for Phoenix, which has also lost a season-high five straight games overall.
“Every loss hurts just as much right now,” captain Shane Doan said. “It’s really frustrating. We have lost five straight now, and at this time of the season, that’s unacceptable.”
Phoenix, which last reached the postseason in 2001-02, has only six games remaining to make up its eight-point deficit on Vancouver and Colorado - the teams tied for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference.