The San Jose Sharks are starting to look like the Stanley Cup contender we thought they would be at the start of the season.
It is their two-headed monster of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on defense that is driving them back to that level.
The Sharks enter Monday night’s game against the Los Angeles Kings (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) having collected a point in 13 of their past 16 games (with 11 of those games being wins) to keep pace in the suddenly tight Pacific Division race with the Calgary Flames and Vegas Golden Knights.
This is the type of performance we expected to see from the Sharks this season after adding Karlsson to a blue line that already boasted Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, and Brendan Dillon.
On paper, it is one of the best defensive groups in the league, and the addition of Karlsson gave them a collection of Norris Trophy caliber players that few teams in recent league history have ever had. The few teams that have had that type of star-power on their blue line have typically gone very far in the playoffs and made serious runs at the Stanley Cup (if not actually winning it).
Over the past month Karlsson and Burns have been playing at a level that makes the Sharks look like a serious threat to do just that.
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Since Dec. 1 Burns and Karlsson are first and second in the league in scoring among defensemen with 21 and 20 points respectively, while Karlsson has recorded at least one point in 13 of his 15 games during that stretch. That includes his current 12-game point streak.
Burns, meanwhile, has been especially hot over the past two weeks with 12 points in his past five games, including at least two in each of the past four games.
For the season as a whole, both players have been among the NHL’s elite when it comes to driving possession and scoring chances and now the actual production is starting to catch up to really highlight that dominance.
It could not be happening at a better time for the Sharks given the state of the rest of their blue line.
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Vlasic has had a down year from his usual standard. Making matters worse, he and Braun are both currently sidelined due to injury. Those two injuries have not only left them short on defensive depth (their third pairing on Monday is expected to be Jacob Middleton and Tim Heed) but has forced Karlsson and Burns to take on major minutes, with both logging more than 29 minutes in each of the past two games.
They have been great in those minutes.
This is what is going to make the Sharks such a tough out in the playoffs. They not only have two Norris Trophy winning defenders on their blue line (Karlsson and Burns have combined to win three, and be finalists three other times), they have a third defender in Vlasic that, when he is at his best, is a legit top-pairing defender in the NHL. When you can send a No. 1 defensemen over the boards at literally any point during a game that is a huge advantage to have in a short series, especially when one of them (Karlsson) has shown the ability to log huge minutes and carry a team on his back deep into the postseason. Given the talent he has around him on this team he won’t have to do it all on his own.
The wild card for this team is going to be getting adequate goaltending. They have managed to stay in the race for the top spot in the Pacific Division despite having some of the worst goaltending in the league with Martin Jones and Aaron Dell both checking in with save percentages under .900 for the season.
Even during this recent stretch where the Sharks have piled up wins, neither one has played at even a league average level. That, more than anything, has taken away from just how good this Sharks team (and their top defenders) can be.
If they can figure out a way to get that position settled, whether it be Jones returning to form or an in-season trade to upgrade the position in the short-term, this could be a fierce team to have to deal within the second half of the regular season and into the playoffs with that type of impact talent on defense.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.