Forget, for a moment, the San Jose Sharks’ unfettered record of playoff futility. Set aside the fact that they bowed out rather meekly in the first round last year after dominating the regular season en route to the President’s Trophy. Erase from your memory the image of Joe Thornton during that fateful series, wearing a look on his face like that of a man who just had his cereal peed in.
If you can ignore all those factors, you’d be hard-pressed not to consider the San Jose Sharks as the odds on favourites to hoist the Cup this June.
They have the NHL’s second-ranked offense (3.28 goals for/game), fourth-ranked defense (2.33 goals against/game), second-best goal differential (+0.96 goals/game), second-best save percentage (.925) fifth-ranked powerplay (21.7 %) and number one penalty kill (88 %).
Oh, they also have the league’s best record (35-10-9) and are red hot as of late (7-1-2 in their last 10 games, as of Saturday afternoon).
So why don’t more people believe in them? Well, there’s the playoff history, for one, but there also seems to be a fundamental lack of faith that the team’s veterans can provide the type of leadership necessary to make a deep playoff run.
It’s odd, because the Sharks are a squad filled with character players and grizzled Cup veterans.
To wit, captain Rob Blake has been to two Cup finals, winning one (Colorado, 2001), Dan Boyle was a key contributor to the Lightning’s cup win a few seasons ago, and let’s not forget that Dany Heatley notched 22 points in 20 games when Ottawa made the Cup finals in 2007.
This team should be feared by the rest of the league. They should be a blueprint for success in today’s NHL. They should be held in the highest regard by fans and media alike.
Instead they have become the Rodney Dangerfield of the NHL. Or, more accurately, they are to hockey what the Cleveland Indians were to baseball for much of the 90’s and early 00’s.
Over a seven-year stretch from 1995-2001, the Indians won their division and made the playoffs six times. They averaged 93 wins, posting the best record in baseball twice. Yet their record in playoff series over that time was a middling 5-5. They made it to the World Series twice, but were bested both times (thank YOU, Jose Mesa!).
The thing was, as good as those Indian teams were, the pundits rarely tabbed them as a World Series favourite come playoff time. They were perceived to have been lacking that certain je ne sai quois required of the truly elite franchises.
It’s getting to be a similar situation with these Sharks. They have won back-to-back division titles (49-23-10 in ’08, 53-18-11 last season) yet are 1-2 in postseason series.
So, will this year be any different than San Jose’s recent past?
Probably…for a multitude of reasons.
Firstly, this year’s Sharks squad has more scoring than they’ve ever had before. The addition of Dany Heatley coupled with the coming-of-age of Devin Setoguchi and Joe Pavelski have made San Jose downright frightening when they cross the red line. People generally only think of the big three (Thornton, Heatley and Patrick Marleau) when they think of San Jose’s offense, but the truth is they actually have a rather balanced offense. The second line of Pavelski, Setoguchi and Clowe have combined for 89 points and fourth-liner Manny Malhotra has chipped in with a rather robust 22 points.
About the only department that fails to tally their share of goals is the blueliners, who have combined for only 21 goals, 10 of them by Boyle. But that is a relatively small gripe.
The second reason that San Jose is likely to realize their potential this spring is the sudden fall of the Detroit Red Wings. For the first time in a long while, the Wings find themselves mired in the middle of the Campbell Conference standings. After the first-place Sharks and second-place Blackhawks, there is a rather precipitous drop-off in quality to the third-place Vancouver Canucks. Furthermore, the bottom third of the West’s playoff teams don’t appear to be the kinds of teams that have a huge upset in them (like last year’s Ducks, for example). Nashville? Colorado? Dallas? Los Angeles? Calgary? Does anyone think these teams could hold a candle to last year’s Ducks? I don’t. Sure, it could happen, but last year’s Anaheim squad was one of the best 8 seeds in recent memory.
Finally, the Sharks should get over the playoff hump this year precisely BECAUSE they’ve had their hearts ripped out in the past. No one can deny that the Sharks have paid their dues, and that heartbreak should serve to galvanize the squad this time around. They should be fearless, because nothing they can do this year will match the disappointment of ‘09’s first round roster.
San Jose’s veterans have been through this before and won’t be surprised this time if they get a proverbial pop on the chin from a team that just sneaked into the playoffs. Sometimes the best teams need to suffer a little heartbreak before they reach the Holy Land. Remember the Red Wings of the early 90’s? The team that suffered two heartbreaking first round losses following 100+ point seasons?
Didn’t think so. Four Stanley Cups in a 12-season stretch will erase a lot of bad memories.
With the stellar goaltending of Evgeni Nabokov, the gritty two-way skills of Patrick Marleau, the playmaking prowess of Joe Thornton and the leadership of Rob Blake, the Sharks have a great opportunity to hoist Lord Stanley’s mug in June.
Sure, an injury or two could derail them (they’re sending no fewer than 8 players to the Olympics and could suffer from collateral damage) and they might get knocked out by a goalie standing on his head (Roberto Luongo, for example). And playoff success is never a guarantee, even to a team with so few weaknesses as the Sharks.
But I certainly won’t be betting against them this season, so long as no one pees in Joe Thornton’s Cheerios.