May 5, 2011
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The San Jose Sharks are always on the verge of scaring the hell out of their fans. Its what makes them, them.Even when they have a series by the delicates, as they do this one against the Detroit Red Wings, theres always something. Like the 7-1 Red Wings win in Game 4 a year ago that prevented the Sharks from closing out their series in four games.
But it is a false panic this time; the Wings have only the benefit of desperation to fuel their further efforts. Even if they are still the prideful team that went to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009, and have been the sports version of Manchester United for the past decade and a half, this cycle is coming to a slow close, and whether it happens Friday in Joe Louis Arena or Sunday at Le Pavillion du HP matters not.RELATED: Sharks-Wings Round 2 schedule
Only if the Sharks decide to let them back into this series do they find new life; such has been the subtle but telling difference between the two teams.Joe Thornton is the best Joe Thornton he has been since coming west from Boston in Doug Wilsons first distressed items raid; Hes not Offensive Jumbo any more, hes Complete Jumbo now, according to Todd McLellan.Goaltender Antti Niemi has silenced through pistol-whipping the legions who demanded that he become Antero Niittymaki.The cheeky Devin Setoguchi, who so wants to be a star on par with the Big Four (Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle) and The Biggish Three (Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture), is on the verge of joining the second group. Hes still growing up in the hockey world, McLellan said. Hes had very good parts of seasons where hes on a top of the world, and others where hes struggled.RATTO: Setoguchi helps Sharks cheat the reaper
And then there are the slightly under-the-radar types who have greased the tank treads just as well as if they had been the big-money boys. Kyle Wellwood has benefited from, and provided benefit for, the Pavelski line (with the undersung Torrey Mitchell) by being the guy who, once he acquires the puck, never seems to lose it until he is prepared to do so. His time in Toronto and Vancouver and Russia is now barely visible in his rear-view mirror, and if he can maintain his present fitness through the summer, he will become an indispensable part of the nucleus. Ian White is perhaps the best third-pair defenseman left in the postseason, the skill that meshes with Niclas Wallins more rudimentary defensive work and gives San Jose depth in a place where it has traditionally had none. Wallin. See above, with the added benefit of delivering the blocked shots element that has been missing in the San Jose fabric through most of the decade. Jason Demers has grown into the intrepid offensive defenseman that allows Marc-Edouard Vlasic to be the defense-first guy he has always wanted to be. Vlasic has the gift to be a force in attack, but seems far more comfortable in his own end initiating rather than joining rushes, and Demers has a bit of the hit-on-17 about his game.We know all these things because Todd McLellan has gone longer without tweaking his top three lines than he ever has before. He has hit on the combinations that make the most sense and do the most damage, and for someone who is as tinker-happy as he is, the stability on the top three lines is both shocking and ingenious. A coach who can go away from his instincts is to be prized, and McLellan is showing the combinations of flexibility and spine that he either learned from Mike Babcock or stole from him outright.
And yet, for all that, the Sharks may still lose Game 4, because they are also whom we always thought they were a team that historically handles bounty the way most teams handle adversity. With butter-coated oven mitts.
They still have not proven that they can be the bullies of the conference their standings positions suggest they ought to be. They still turn out the biggest howlers at the least contextually sensical times. They still believe they are who they once were, the guys who can run with anyone.
But this series has shown that they are better when they are the guys who can prevent you from running. They dont neutral ice trap or do the actuarial grind-the-game-down things that made New Jersey or elevated Tampa Bay. But they use their size more effectively than they ever have before, because they have stopped trying to be all teams for all people.
They are this team, and they get into trouble only when they forget who they are and what they do.
And yet, for all that as well, they may still lose Game 4 because the Red Wings arent dead yet. The three San Jose wins have not been overwhelming, though the better team has won Games 1 and 2. The Wings have not won many of the important battles, but they have lost by one, one and one goal.
But despite McLellans entreaties that the Sharks should forget about last years series victory over Detroit, this series is last years, almost to a T. I think its natural to reflect upon it a little, Mitchell said. The similarities are all over it. Game 4, though . . . (Johan) Franzen got that hat trick in the first period, they were up like what, 5-0? It was almost like we all said, Okay, lets get to Game 5.
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That, though, is in the hands of the gods, or Eric Nesterenko, whichever comes first. There is Friday night, and the Sharks in position to either finish the unfathomable deed or string out the proceedings awhile longer. Indeed, they might become the first team to win successive series against the same team with the same order of victories since Montreal swept St. Louis in back-to-back Finals in 1968 and 1969.
The Red Wings do not have the power to win this series, unless the Sharks grant it to them. But they do have the power to discomfit the Sharks into thinking about who they are instead of simply being who they are. In sum, this series is over, and it isnt.