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With a quarter of the 2015-16 season completed, the San Jose Sharks seem to be riding high. The club currently ranks second in the Pacific Division, with just one point separating them and the first place Los Angeles Kings.

Newly minted captain Joe Pavelski has been a hit in his new role, scoring at a point-per-game pace to lead the Sharks in scoring. The 31-year-old has been on a tear as of late, having racked up 10 points in his last eight games. His club has similarly seemed dominant recently, posting seven wins in their last 10 outings – a run that included a six-game win streak.

And yet, San Jose’s early success this season is somewhat misleading when viewed in light of the team’s true goals.

While it’s true the Sharks have looked like a strong club, they’ve done little to prove that they have progressed as a contender. Though the Sharks have amassed 14 wins so far this season, 10 have come against Eastern Conference teams. However, when facing the top talent in their own conference, the results have been less inspiring.

San Jose opened the season with a dominant 5–1 win against the Kings, but since that victory they’ve lost games to the Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, and Nashville Predators, while losing their second match against L.A. by a score of 4–1.

The Sharks’ 2015-16 season has had a notable trend so far. They’ve excelled against lower-tier Western Conference talent – taking down teams like the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche – and have excelled against the East, but each time they’ve come up against a legitimate Western Conference contender, San Jose has come up short.

Goaltending has been a key issue against these top conference rivals, as Chicago and Dallas put a combined 10 goals into San Jose’s cage in their two match-ups.

The Sharks’ subpar performances against these powerhouses hasn’t come from a lack of trying either. Starting netminder Martin Jones – who came over as the team’s marquee offseason acquisition last summer – has seemed to be a success in his debut season as a Shark, but he’s been the primary culprit of this East-West divide. Jones has started all but one of San Jose’s games against Western teams, while back-up Alex Stalock has seen five of his six starts come against teams from the East.

That being the case, it seems Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer has been putting his best out against conference rivals, understanding the weight of the Sharks’ performances against these exceptional clubs. However, the results have been underwhelming so far. Jones has won all but two of his games against Eastern teams, while putting together a 4-4 split against teams from San Jose’s own conference.

It may seem like a small qualm to have with a team that currently sits just one point away from the top spot in their division, but the distinction is a crucial one given the recent history of the Sharks organization. The key issue at play here is where the Sharks stand as a franchise, and what they’re looking to accomplish this season. The Sharks, aren’t in the midst of a rebuild, nor are they a young team coming into their own. While they have some notable young stars on their roster, the majority of their key players are weathered veterans over the age of 30 – the team’s top five scorers thus far are all 30 years old or older (Pavelski, Brent Burns, Joel Ward, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Thornton).

That means the Sharks aren’t aiming to win some time down the road – they remain in the hunt for a championship right now, before their older core players are forced to hang up their skates and the franchise is forced to start from square one. After stumbling mightily last season en route to missing the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, the Sharks opted to shake things up with some offseason changes, hoping for a better effort in 2015-16. What, then, is the team’s goal for their current campaign?

A year of performing well against everyone except those that figure to stand in their way come playoff time surely won’t be taken as a win for the Sharks brass – and yet, that’s seemingly what has happened so far in the young season. If they hope to truly take a step forward in 2015-16, the answer isn’t necessarily winning a Stanley Cup – though that is surely still the team’s end goal – rather, a more realistic step forward would be proving that they can contend with the top teams in their own conference all year long.

So far, the Sharks have stumbled each time they’ve been presented with this task, despite having found notable success by other means.

That being said, the Sharks still have plenty of time to prove themselves in this regard, and they clearly have the personnel to rise to the challenge. Though they’ve been unable to take down these Western powerhouses yet, the Sharks have done excellent work overall – currently reigning as the fifth-best team in the West in terms of goals-for per game, and the third-best in terms of goals-against per game.

If they can begin to translate their success against the East to wins against teams they’ll inevitably face come playoff time, then San Jose could very well make 2015-16 a season of moving forward as a franchise. However, if current trends remain intact, the Sharks seem likely to bow out early in the postseason once again, continuing to fall short against dominant Western clubs as their own contender window closes.

Sonny has served as a credentialed member of the media while covering the Calgary Flames, and has seen his work regarding various NHL teams featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports, and Bleacher Report, among others. He also serves as an NHL Analyst for H4TV's The Sports Journal, as Sports Editor of the Gauntlet, and has formerly served as the Editor of Pens Labyrinth.

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