SAN JOSE -- The most encouraging thing about the Sharks right now happens several times a game.

It happens when the puck crosses the blue line into their offensive zone and Brent Burns is on the ice.

Be- cause after that happens, with Burns such a force of mayhem, you never know what might happen next.

Heck, even if Burns is carrying the puck, he doesn't know what will happen next. Neither do his linemates, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski.

Wait. That's incorrect. Pavelski has finally gotten a handle on Burns' tendencies.

"Yeah, I can tell where he's going," Pavelski said. "If you look where he should be going, he's going the other way."

Pavelski was joking. Or maybe not.

Burns, the converted defenseman, played a physical game at that position and is still a work in progress at forward. But he is at his best when he creates chaos. Burns might do this with the puck, or without the puck. He might do this while pursuing the puck, or while forechecking an opponent toward Cupertino. He might do this while charging toward the net and awaiting a pass, or while muscling up along the boards.

"I don't like to think out there," he confirmed.

Burns was joking. Or maybe not.

Either way, it's all good. Because it is unpredictable. The Sharks sorely need more of that quality -- especially in the springtime, as the postseason approaches. Predictability has been their doom in the past.

Saturday night against the Washington Capitals, the Sharks continued their push toward the highest possible playoff seed. They lost 3-2 in a shootout, but the more important picture for our beloved Los Tiburones was -- and is -- the overall picture.

What will the Sharks look like when the playoffs start?

Because they need to look unpredictable. They have been too predictable in past Stanley Cup tournaments, even after excellent regular seasons such as this one. They enter the postseason with their forward lines set up well, their defensive pairings tight, a system in place that's been so successful from October through March. The Sharks then come out of the box and win a series or two to build up hopes ... and then an opposing team figures out how to beat them. And does.

Success in hockey, as with any sport, is a balance between the predictable and unpredictable. A team must have structure, a general blueprint of how to play offense and defense. Sharks coach Todd McLellan's structure and system have a better track record than anyone's since his arrival in 2008. But when the flash-point moment (or moments) of the playoffs arrives, there must also be a wild-card component that the other team wasn't counting on having to confront.

That's where the Sharks have fallen short. After one memorably bitter playoff elimination when Jeremy Roenick was still with the team, he was asked for an explanation and answered: "We were stale." Which is a synonym for predictable.

Coming into this season, if you were trying to discern why this Sharks team might be different from last year's Sharks team, there were only a few real possibilities. One was the full-season presence of Raffi Torres (who arrived via trade last April and was effective but missed most of the seven-game series loss to Los Angeles last year because of a suspension). Another was the arrival of Tomas Hertl, a touted rookie.

And the third? That would be whatever Burns might provide in his new forward role.

Well, we all know what happened. Torres suffered a knee injury in the preseason and has dressed for only five games, though he is expected back for the playoffs. Hertl started strong but had a knee mangled in a December collision, hasn't played since and is unlikely for the postseason. Matt Nieto, another rookie, has essentially replaced Hertl and been a pleasant if not as dynamic a surprise.

That leaves Burns. He seemed to be feeling out his role on the line with Thornton and Pavelski during the winter but has settled into a wonderfully loopy groove in the last few weeks. It's been lovely to watch. He has become the Uncle of Unpredictability, the Rajah of Random, the Ayatollah of Arbitrary.

"He just goes," Thornton said the other night of the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Burns. "He's just a beast out there. It just forces you to try to keep up with him because he's going so fast."

For all the chaos, Thornton still has been able to locate Burns and dish up the puck. But in assembling that three-man unit, McLellan made his smartest move in throwing Pavelski out there. As Burns does his whirling dervish act and Thornton looks to sort it out, Pavelski is the stabilizing force who can clean up any mistakes that backfire and find open space when the puck either comes to him or pops up in front of him. Pavelski is having the best scoring season of his career.

Of course, that won't mean anything if it doesn't carry over into April and May.

"At the end of the day, we've got to win," Pavelski said.

As long as Burns is out there being anarchic, the Sharks can do that. He appears committed to that. But can you actually prepare and practice the art of creating a disturbance?

"No," Burns said. "But I do try to screw up things in practice. It's not too hard."

Burns was joking. Or maybe not. Best not to ponder it too deeply. Best just to enjoy the bedlam.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.