Nearly all California hockey fans will be glued to watching Game 2 of the Stanley Cup playoff series between the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings. Believe it or not, though, there will be other hockey games taking place of great importance to the Bay Area. The Sharks main affiliate, the San Jose Barracuda, will wrap up their regular season this weekend with an American Hockey League playoff spot on the line.
Just a week ago, things looked quite bleak for the Barracuda playoff chances. The Barracuda coughed up the eighth-and-final playoff spot in the Western Conference to the Charlotte Checkers on March 13. For weeks, the two continued to battle for the rank, matching each other win-for-win along the way, and the Barracuda briefly taking a standing lead at the end of March.
April began and the Checkers started to pull away from San Jose with some timely victories. When the Barracuda would get the opportunity to pull themselves back into the fray, they would find a way to shoot themselves in the foot instead. The biggest case in point would be last Saturday’s complete meltdown to the Texas Stars, with the Barracuda leading 5-2 with less than two minutes remaining in the 2nd period, only to allow six unanswered goals in the final 21:42 of the game to lose 8-5. After that debacle, the Barracuda had appeared to throw away their chance to dictate their own playoff fate.
Three games remaining for the Checkers, to just two for the Barracuda, meant that the underbit version of the Sharks would likely need three, if not all four, points in their final games this weekend to have any shot at the playoffs. The snag in the plan for Charlotte was that their final three games came against the top two teams in the Central Division — Milwaukee and Lake Erie. As it turned out, the Checkers lost all three of those games, finishing the season on a five-game losing streak. It’s a new hope, once more, for the Barracuda. Only one point now secures the “first birth in franchise history” (though technically they made the playoffs last year).
The opponent for the Barracuda should be far less strenuous than the assignment the Checkers faced — the Stockton Heat — in a home-and-away series that begins tonight in Stockton. Gaining one point should not be a difficult chore for the Barracuda, who have gone a whopping 8-0-2 against the underachieving Heat and scored 46 goals in those games. It gets worse for the Heat, who have been without their top three goaltenders due to injuries (plus Joni Ortio on recall to the Calgary Flames). They have been forced to rely on Western Hockey League goalie Nick Schneider and CIS (Canadian college) netminder Patrick Killeen to stand in net in recent games.
Achieving success against the Heat leads to a playoff matchup with the Ontario Reign, thanks to the AHL’s quirky divisional playoff structure. What a nice way to train the Sharks’ and Kings’ prospects to hate each other before they even make it to the National Hockey League!
Let us not get ahead of ourselves though. While that task sounds to be almost a given for the Barracuda, the biggest on-ice story to come from this team this season has been their uncanny ability to succumb to any pressure placed on their shoulders. Making use of opportunity has been a dirty term — whether it has been a powerplay corps that has given up nine shorthanded goals, countless multi-goal leads lost, and who could forget that it took the team seven tries and an AHL-high 50-save performance from Aaron Dell just to get win #637 for Roy Sommer?
Still, the idea that the Barracuda have even made it to this point is a testament to their improvement this calendar year after a dreadful first three months. Going into December 30, the Barracuda sat in 12th place in the conference before seemingly turned things around with a shootout win, ironically, against the Checkers.
This Barracuda team gives fans plenty of reason to watch this weekend series with intense scrutiny, even though clearly overshadowed by the big boys playing at Staples Center. If you lose track of the game as it is played, be sure to check the score of the game before heading to bed. A regulation loss on Saturday means that it will be do-or-die at SAP Center on Sunday. Sure, it would be par for the course that the Barracuda take an OT loss in that game to get into the playoffs. Either way, if they back their way into the playoffs or do it the right way, the Barracuda are primed to piggyback on the Sharks own playoff run. That is the best way for this franchise to get noticed.