Sharks question No. 1: Is this the year?

Sharks question No. 1: Is this the year?
February 26, 2014, 10:30 am
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The San Jose Sharks have never appeared in the Stanley Cup Finals in the franchise's 22-year history. (USATSI)

The Sharks were playing their best hockey of the season when they fell to Los Angeles in a second-round series last season. (USATSI)

Programming note: Sharks-Flyers coverage Thursday at 3:30 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet California

Question 1 – Can the Sharks win the Stanley Cup?

The Sharks mantra of playing “fast, hard and supportive” is painted on a wall inside the dressing room at the practice facility, where the players spend most of their time together.

It’s highlighted somewhere in head coach Todd McLellan’s mind, too, and it’s hard to tell if he even realizes he’s repeating those three personality traits when asked what he wants to see from his club. Or, maybe he’s uttered it to his group so many times that it’s become second nature.

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“As we go down the stretch, we want to be fast, we want to be a hard team to play against with and without the puck, and we’ve got to be supportive,” McLellan said. “We have to use everybody. We have to be playing as units of five on the ice, all over the place.”

* * *

In order to assess the current state of the Sharks, it’s necessary to rewind back to the last trade deadline. After a torrid start to the shortened 2013 season, the Sharks went into a terrible slump around the beginning of February. They were getting good goaltending and playing solid team defense, but they simply could not put the puck in the net.

From Feb. 2 to March 12, the Sharks managed to score more than two goals just three times in an 18-game span. They were 4-8-6 over that stretch, and looked like they were on their way to dropping out of the playoff picture.

Something had to be done. McLellan recalled gathering several times with general manager Doug Wilson, his staff, and the rest of the Sharks’ brain trust.

“We – not just me and Doug, but everybody in the organization – met, and kept talking about where we we're at and what we needed to do,” McLellan said. “The speed element of our team wasn’t where it needed to be, in my opinion and in ours. We felt we had to become a quicker team to be effective. There were other adjustments that we had to make, but we needed to adjust and adapt in that area. We tried to do that.”

Out were the plodding Douglas Murray, slumping Ryane Clowe and ineffective Michal Handzus. Arriving from Phoenix was Raffi Torres, who essentially embodied all the elements the Sharks were looking for in upping the tempo and intensity to their game.

“From there, it could go either way,” McLellan said.

It went well, and the Sharks were playing their best hockey of the season when they fell in seven games to Los Angeles, which followed a dominant first round sweep of Vancouver.

As for Torres, he’s expected to make his season debut on Thursday in Philadelphia, and is essentially a late season addition all over again. He recalled a conversation with Wilson shortly after the Sharks’ general manager snatched him up from Phoenix for a third round pick.

“When I got traded here, Doug was saying he wanted to go in the direction of being a more north-south team. Obviously, a faster team…It was good to hear from the GM to come in and just go out and play hockey,” Torres remembered.

McLellan said: “Some of the new players that came into the lineup added that speed element, added an energy element, and it became somewhat contagious.”

Which brings us to the current season.

For the most part, the Sharks have been able to maintain their identity that they found nearly a full calendar year ago. Converted defenseman Brent Burns remains a power forward with a wicked shot, Joe Pavelski provides the necessary balance as the third line center, and defensively, San Jose remains a tight team in its own end, sitting fourth in the league in team goals-against average. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Logan Couture, before he got hurt, have all been as productive as could have been expected.

There have been ups and downs, as any team will experience in an 82-game season, but there is no identity crisis now. Each player in the Sharks locker room is well aware of what the team, and he himself needs to do to be successful.

“We learned a lot from last year,” Thornton said. “We like where we’re at.”

* * *

Winning the Pacific Division would be preferable, of course. The Sharks trail the Anaheim Ducks by seven points, with one game in hand and two head-to-head matchups remaining.

Getting out of the division won’t be easy, as the Sharks may need to beat both of their California rivals in order to advance to the Western Conference finals.

“I think home ice is important,” Dan Boyle said. “I’m a believer in home ice advantage. … Winning our division would have us playing Game 7 here, should we have it at some point. I think you’d rather be at home than on the road.”

There’s also the matter of injuries, which could crop up at any time. Torres’ effectiveness after a second major right knee operation has yet to be seen, and the Sharks are still without rookie Tomas Hertl, who is finally set to resume skating after major knee surgery on Dec. 31.

Wilson could always add some depth to the roster at the trade deadline, too. It’s a near certainty he won’t make any major transactions, as the Sharks don’t want to mess with the identity they’ve been able to build for the last 11 months.

“Hertl is going to be the one we’re going to be missing, but I’m excited to see our guys come back and get our balance back,” Boyle said. “I think that was our key at the end of last year, and our key at the start of this year. That’s going to be the element on our team that’s going to hopefully help us get to where we want to be.”

Thornton said: “If we stay healthy, I think I like our odds.”

If the Sharks stick to that mentality of playing fast, hard and supportive, they could very well have what it takes to make a real run at the franchise’s first championship. Expect to hear those three words from McLellan’s mouth often down the stretch, either on purpose or subconsciously.

“We’ll be looking to find that in that 23-game phase before we get to the playoffs, if we’re fortunate enough to make it,” he said.