April 12, 2011
SHARKS PAGE SHARKS VIDEO
LOS ANGELES PAGE NHL PAGE
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF PAIRINGS
SHARKS TV SCHEDULE ON CSNCALIFORNIA
Its been quite the ride for the Sharks since the calendar flipped to 2011.
Left for dead by fans and pundits across the league after an ugly six-game losing streak to begin the new year, San Jose's 27-6-4 run since Jan. 15 has made it the pick-du-jour by many to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.
And for good reason.
After naming Antti Niemi the starting goaltender, the Sharks made a firm commitment to their defensive game and were able to win some low-scoring contests. Soon after, the offense picked up across the board. A couple of small, yet effective moves by GM Doug Wilson boosted the teams depth and toughness, and the acquisition of the underrated Ian White meant the Sharks would be spending less time in their own end.
What emerged is a team that has all the makings of a champion.
RATTO: Sharks face familiar first-round foe
Yes, youve heard this before, only to be disappointed year after year while watching a roster chock full of elite players fall flat on their faces when the lights are shining brightest.
Could this year end up as another disappointment? Of course. The NHLs annual two-month war of attrition is about as predictable as a night on the town with Charlie Sheen. But there are a few reasons this Sharks team is better prepared than in years past.
STARTS WITH NIEMI
Lets begin in net.
Niemi is the only Cup-winning goaltender in the conference who is still playing. While net play isnt as important as it was pre-lockout, its still a huge factor. Niemi didnt have to be spectacular in the playoffs last season, playing behind such a talented Chicago team (in fact, in the Finals against Philadelphia, he was decidedly average). He does, however, make the saves that he needs to make, rarely allowing a bad goal. Theres no question that his teammates trust him to hold the fort once the playoffs begin. After all, many of them were first-hand witnesses last May when Niemis Blackhawks ended the Sharks season in a four-game sweep.
That confidence may have been missing in recent years, after Evgeni Nabokov failed to maintain his level of play from the regular season into the postseason. The Sharks skaters know firsthand that Niemi can carry the load in the playoffs, and do it well -- which can make a world of difference.
NBC: Five players with the most Stanley Cup pressure
The Sharks were one of just two teams to end the year with seven 20-goal scorers (Philadelphia was the other, although Kris Versteeg scored most of his goals while still on Toronto). All seven are forwards, and spread out across the teams top-three scoring lines. Last season? San Jose relied mainly upon its Big Three, as Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley were the unquestioned leaders of the offense.
The biggest addition, of course, is rookie Logan Couture. The Calder Trophy candidate made a good account of himself in 15 playoff games last year with four goals, but hell be looked upon to carry a much bigger role this time around. Couture certainly doesnt lack any confidence, and with eight game-winning goals this season, has shown he has a knack for timely scoring -- which is what playoff hockey is all about.
RELATED: Kings roster stats injuries depth chart
Wilson knew early on last summer that he would have to address Rob Blakes retirement at the end of the 2009-10 season. He tried over the summer to no avail, but kept his patience before jumping on the opportunity to land the well-rounded White to his roster without have to give up a whole lot to Carolina in return.
The move paid immediate dividends.
The 5-10, 200-pound blueliner has provided a steady presence in the Sharks zone. He makes a good first pass, is rarely caught out of position, and can contribute on special teams with his right-handed shot. In 23 games with San Jose hes been a minus player just four times, which is a reflections of just how defensively responsible he is.
Hell likely be leaned upon for more minutes against first-round opponent Los Angeles -- along with fellow defensemen Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic -- to help mask the sometimes careless play of Jason Demers (whose game improved dramatically throughout the season) and Niclas Wallin. The Sharks defense corps should be good enough to take the team where it wants to go.
In the season's second half, the Sharks had to fight and claw for every point in the tight Western Conference race, particularly when it became apparent that there wouldnt be any sort of opportunity to put things on cruise control.
Does it make them more prepared for playoff hockey?
Thats one popular theory,and a quick peek at recent NHL history shows its validity. The Sharks of yesteryear could attest to that, as could last seasons version of the Washington Capitals, who bowed out in the first round to Montreal after easily finishing first in the conference.
Flying under the radar may serve the Sharks well, even with all of the national attention they seem to be getting lately. The Vancouver Canucks will be the heavy favorites after one of the more impressive regular seasons in recent memory, but with a tragic season-ending eye injury to third-line center and former Shark Manny Malhotra, a blue line that had to deal with numerous long-term injuries throughout the season, and Roberto Luongos failed playoff runs of the past it could be the Sharks doing the upsetting should the teams meet in the Western Conference finals.
Naturally, there's no shortage of pitfalls for the Sharks. The penalty-killing down the stretch was concerning; power forward Ryane Clowes health is a question mark; and the failings of past Sharks teams will always loom over the current group until it gets to the Finals or wins it all.
RELATED: Clowe's return comes at perfect time
The beauty of the NHL playoffs is that the team that wants it the most is, more times than not, the team that ends up victorious.
The Sharks want it, and theyre capable of it. Will they do it? Time will tell, but the ride could be just getting started.
Kevin Kurz is a producer with Comcast Sports Group Interactive in Philadelphia.