SAN JOSE The Sharks werent supposed to be in this position in the last week of March.
The fans know it. The players do, too. And so, of course, does head coach Todd McLellan, whose club is still in 10th place in the Western Conference with just eight games left to play.
Following two disappointing losses to Anaheim and Los Angeles to start the week, the coach sensed that the pressure of the playoff race might be weighing the team down. So, he had a clear message before the 2-1 win over the Bruins on Thursday.
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When youre in these situations and there is stress put on you, your body reacts in one of two ways. It shuts itself down and it hinders any type of elite performance, you feel sluggish, tired, your mind doesnt react the way it needs to react. Or, you accept the challenge and realize youre one piece of a big puzzle and you do your thing. Thats basically what I told the players before the game.
Well get it done with you, not because of you. That was it. I think the guys took a deep breath, and then they went and played. Thats all we can do. If we carry around all this baggage, its going to hinder our ability to play free and to perform.
According to Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the Sharks took the message to heart and it showed.
Ive never seen our team skate that much lately. The forwards were coming back, D were skating. Its the same thing, youve just got to play the game, play for fun and play free, he said.
Guys are here because they love to play hockey. Everybody is good at it, and yesterday we played free. We played hockey, we skated, and we did the things we can do. Guys made plays, nobody had tight sticks, nobody made bad plays. Thats what we were talking about. We have to play that way from now on.
The result was one of the more complete games in recent weeks, and the club resembled the version it iced in wins against Nashville and Detroit last week much more than the two ugly losses to the Ducks and Kings on Monday and Tuesday, when the team was seemingly starting to collapse under pressure.
You cant play cautious, especially this time of year, Dominic Moore said. Cautious is a recipe for playing on your heels. We need to just continue to play free, and with energy.
The challenge now is repeating it from here on out, as the games are only going to get more and more important. It begins on Saturday against the Coyotes, a club that is two points ahead of San Jose in seventh place in the West, and Colorado, which is ahead of the Sharks by one point, in eighth place.
Unlike the Sharks, the Coyotes and Avalanche werent among the organizations that many hockey pundits had as a Cup contender in their preseason prognostications. Consequently, the pressure of the playoff race is likely less of a burden on their shoulder pads when compared with the Sharks.
But the Sharks cant look at it that way.
Were looked at as the disappointing team because were in the battle, McLellan said. There are other teams that are very, very excited about being in this battle because of where they maybe should have been. The demeanor around those types of teams is different than the demeanor around ours, and we have to address the mental aspect of it, too.
We have to accept where we are right now. Thats where we are. Would we like to change it? Yes, but this is where we are, so now accept the challenge. We have to be excited about the opportunity to get there, too.
Joe Pavelski, who has a career-high 27 goals, hopes the team has turned a corner with the effort against the defending champs.
I hope so, as long as we keep moving forward with it. Every team is winning right now, Pavelski said. We have some big head-to-head matchups, and its not going to get any easier from here on out.
Moore said: Weve all played the game for a long time, and we just needed to tap into that energy.