Programming note: Coverage of Game 1 between the Sharks and Kings begins Thursday night at 7:00 on CSN California with Sharks Pregame Live.
SAN JOSE – Dan Boyle joined the Sharks in the fifth year of their current 10-year run of making the NHL’s postseason. So, he’s been around long enough to hear the biggest criticism surrounding the club for nearly a decade.
Early in the week, as San Jose started preparing for its opening round playoff matchup with the Los Angeles Kings, the 37-year-old defenseman was again presented with the theory that the Sharks are always a playoff team, but only get so far before succumbing.
“You guys can shove it up your (expletive),” Boyle said, not maliciously and through a wide grin, eliciting laughter from the surrounding media.
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“We’re here to win the Stanley Cup. We worked hard all year to get to this point, to get an opportunity. Only one team is going to get to raise it at the end of the season, so we’ve got our work cut out for us."
“But, we certainly like where our team is at. We like our depth this year. The only way to shut you guys up is to win it. It’s the same thing since I got here.”
Ask anyone on the Sharks to point to the biggest strength on the team, and, like Boyle, they mention the club’s depth.
Logan Couture is as good a second line center in the NHL, and along with Patrick Marleau, routinely goes up against the opposition’s top line. Joe Pavelski could shift back to the third line center at some point, maybe even to start the series with Los Angeles. After a 41-goal year, there is simply no team in the NHL that could boast of a third line center with such credentials.
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On defense, Marc-Edouard Vlasic has established himself as arguably the best shutdown blueliner in the league. Jason Demers has drastically improved from seasons past, while Boyle still eats up minutes and helps to run the top power play unit. Even in goal, Alex Stalock has shown he can be a reliable NHL starter behind former Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi.
“I think this year we have playoff players, and now this is the time of the year when those guys shine,” Marleau said. “That’s the depth we have. Those players can move up and down and fill different roles.”
Tommy Wingels said: “I think in years past some of the other guys said ‘I want to be the guy that [plays] all the roles,’ because they trust themselves in those situations. But, I think this year they trust some other guys, some younger players to fill those roles and fill those minutes. From that standpoint, we've got a very good lineup.”
The Sharks hope to be as healthy as they’ve been all season when the puck drops again on Thursday. Rookie Tomas Hertl and forward Raffi Torres are both expected to play in Game 1 against the Kings, adding that necessary depth that could be the biggest factor in what should be a tight and violent first round battle.
“Unfortunately, they were injured for most of the season, and they’re two very important parts to our success,” Boyle said. “It’ll be nice to see them both back in the lineup at the same time. And, yes, we are different with them.”
The arrival of Hertl and Nieto, along with the well-liked Stalock playing in his first full NHL season after a career-threatening leg injury, has seemed to bring a bit more energy to the Sharks’ dressing room. Anyone who has spent time around the group on a regular basis can see the players genuinely seem to enjoy each other’s company.
That doesn’t always translate into success, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
“The young guys that came in really fit in well, and all the additions we made, everyone has kind of gelled pretty nicely,” Demers said. “That’s important having chemistry going into the playoffs. I think we have that. We’re all pretty excited to go here.”
The Sharks’ dressing room at their practice facility sports the phrase “Fast-Hard-Supportive.” McLellan points to that last trait when asked about the team’s tightness as a group.
“We wanted to become a more supportive group, and that can be interpreted a lot of different ways. ... Whether it’s on the ice and playing with numbers and tighter that way, but also off the rink, in the locker room and away from the building,” McLellan said.
“I really think we’ve grown our organization in that area. Like any really close family, you still have moments where it’s not going real well. But, at that point the hierarchy in the family steps up and tries to put it back together, and everybody else fills their role and families survive. We’re no different than that type of model.”
The failed experiences of the past are also still with guys like Boyle, Marleau, Pavelski and captain Joe Thornton, who have yet to prove they have what it takes as a group to make that final step.
They get another chance starting on Thursday, and it could be the best chance they’ve had so far.
“I like the experience that we’ve gone through, both positive and negative. We’ve had some stumbles as a group,” McLellan said. “I’m talking about the core. Obviously, there are new people in the lineup, but we’ve had some stumbles as a core and we’ve also had some good successes. I think we can draw from each of them, and try and take a step forward.”
“It has to be a fresh start,” Marleau said. “You’ve got to play each game, each second like you’re in that moment. You can’t be thinking about what’s happened in the past. You learn from those experiences, and you move on.”