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Sports >  NHL

Kraken must capitalize on weak schedule down the stretch to keep playoffs in sight

Feb. 21, 2023 Updated Tue., Feb. 21, 2023 at 5:25 p.m.

On Jan. 27, 2023, head coach Dave Hakstol of the Seattle Kraken looks on during the second period against the Calgary Flames at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle. Hakstol's Kraken topped the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, in Seattle.  (Getty Images)
On Jan. 27, 2023, head coach Dave Hakstol of the Seattle Kraken looks on during the second period against the Calgary Flames at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle. Hakstol's Kraken topped the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, in Seattle. (Getty Images)
By Geoff Baker Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Unfortunately, the Kraken celebrated Presidents Day just like so many of us by not showing up to work – in this case, a road game against the San Jose Sharks.

Don’t take it from me. Listen to them.

“I think we just didn’t skate,” Kraken forward Yanni Gourde said. “We didn’t skate hard enough. They dictated the pace of the game and we adjusted to them, which should never happen with our group.”

Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said

the Sharks “were quicker and harder at the puck. I can use a lot of different adjectives, I guess, to talk about it, but they worked at a level where they were winning and dictating those battles.”

Translation: The Kraken took an unscheduled day off.

The truly unfortunate part isn’t that they picked Monday to stop skating and digging and executing after four solid contests. We’ve discussed previously how this team’s grueling style might not be sustainable over 82 regular-season games and that they’ll need to take unofficial breathers some games to make it to the playoffs in one piece.

So, the fact the Kraken did take one after collecting seven of eight possible points their prior four games isn’t the big issue. It’s that they did it against the Sharks – a bad team missing two of its biggest stars and preparing to sell off parts to the highest bidder by next week’s trade deadline.

One built-in advantage the Kraken have in a razor-thin Pacific Division race for home-ice advantage in the opening playoff rounds is a cream puff schedule down the stretch. According to the Tankathon website, it’s the third-easiest schedule in the league behind only Dallas and Colorado.

Over the final two weeks, the Kraken face the Arizona Coyotes three times and the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks once apiece.

Heading into Tuesday, the Coyotes were 27th in the 32-team league, and the Ducks and Blackhawks were tied for dead last. We could expand things and add in the No. 28 Vancouver Canucks, who also face the Kraken that end period, though the fledgling rivalry between those squads means the smart money throws actual standings out the window when they play each other.

Still, if you look at the final six weeks of the Kraken schedule after upcoming home games against the league-leading Boston Bruins on Thursday and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday, it isn’t exactly a Stanley Cup contender gauntlet.

Next week’s road trip features games against a St. Louis Blues squad in full retreat mode after dealing captain Ryan O’Reilly and scoring winger Vladimir Tarasenko. Also, a Columbus Blue Jackets team tied with Chicago and Anaheim for worst overall. They’ll get a bonus home game against Anaheim before that final two-week sprint and go on the road to face San Jose again, with the Sharks opening Tuesday in 29th place overall despite beating the Kraken.

And that’s a big part of the issue with Monday’s loss.

The Kraken’s soft remaining schedule, just like the multiple games in hand they once held over divisional foes, only matters if they actually win those games. Now, there are no such things as “guaranteed” wins in professional sports, unlike, say, in college football, where really good teams usually just need to show up to beat truly inferior ones.

But in this case, the Sharks were about as sure a thing as you’ll get in the win column provided – and this is big – the Kraken played the grueling playoff style that got them this far.

They did not. They took a breather.

As a result, the Kraken entered Tuesday in third place, two points behind the division-leading Vegas Golden Knights with a game in hand. They were a point behind second-place Los Angeles and two up on fourth-place Edmonton having played an equal number of games.

The news wasn’t all bad as the Calgary Flames lost again and remained seven points back of the Kraken in chasing the final Western Conference playoff spot. So, despite the Kraken going 3-4-1 after the All-Star break, they’ve gained two points on Calgary to keep playoff odds at a stellar 91.4%, according to the Money Puck analytics website.

Still, playoff home-ice advantage usually matters despite the Kraken performing better on the road this season. The Kraken don’t want to be opening a best-of-seven series on the road against Edmonton, Dallas or Winnipeg in buildings where they’re a combined 1-5-1 in their two seasons.

The first three teams in each division gain automatic playoff entry and the top two get home-ice advantage the opening round and often beyond.

So, it’s critical the Kraken capitalize against weaker opponents to firm up and separate from divisional foes. With two games against Vegas to end the season, the Kraken still have a real shot at a division – and even a conference – title provided they take care of business against teams preparing for a long summer of golf.

What losing to the Sharks did is lower the Kraken’s margin for error facing the Bruins and Maple Leafs at home. The Kraken handily defeated both on the road last month and you can guarantee they’ll see Hakstol’s group coming this time.

When Boston and Toronto are at their best, the Kraken could play a textbook perfect game and still not prevail. That isn’t the case against bad teams such as the Sharks, Ducks and Blackhawks, whom the Kraken have defeated 8-5, 5-4 and 8-5, respectively, in some of their sloppiest games this season.

So, they just wasted a shot at two points. Now, they’ll need to upset one of the NHL’s top teams in coming days to avoid another losing streak and likely maintain their standings positioning. That’s the price paid for taking the day off against a vastly weaker opponent.

That’s the reminder going forward. The Kraken are only human and won’t be able to go full throttle against everybody their final 25 regular-season games.

But they’ll need to better capitalize on these “gimme” games the rest of the way to position themselves to do much of anything come playoff time.

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