The San Jose Sharks entered the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs against the St. Louis Blues on (if you will forgive the pun) a positive note. Sure, they did not win the division for the first time in five seasons, but they did put two division rivals in their place in a pair of home-and-home series.
After all-but eliminating the Dallas Stars with two regulation wins, they overcame a third period deficit in both games, to end the season with two wins, over the Los Angeles Kings. The games were a mini-playoff of sorts, as the extra two points enabled the Sharks to pull ahead of the Kings for the seventh seed in the Western Conference.
More to the point, they went 10-4-1 over their last 15 games to sneak into the playoffs. It was their third such streak of the season, but all it got them was four games in the only rink the Sharks played in without scoring a goal.
However, they did sweat out a 3-2 double-overtime win to steal home ice from the less experienced Blues. Any Sharks follower had to wonder if they would see the complacent team that has so often crushed hearts or would they see a team that is looking to prove that they are the team everyone thought.
I know the Sharks lost 3-0, greater than the margin of any regular season game, but for an empty netter. But this team showed up.
They lost in part because they caught an unlucky break when an own goal gave them a deficit just 91 seconds into the game against the one team you do not want to trail. (I keep hearing that "these things happen," which apparently include bounces off Sharks skates, but I cannot remember the last time they benefited San Jose.)
But we have to remember, the Blues won the second-best division in hockey and only one team had more points. They were tied for the most standings points at home during the season, had the third-best goal differential and allowed the fewest goals in the league by a margin of 14.
The Blues are one of the best teams in the league. They were not going to crumble after one loss, and they are going to win games even if the Sharks play their best.
Does the decisive win highlight a difference in their talent level? Did the Sharks merely get lucky in Game 1, and face long odds of winning more? Was the win the best they would do and the loss the worst?
Perhaps in St. Louis. Obviously, having shut out the Sharks three times in four games, the Blues are a different team in the Gateway City. But things are going to be different at the Shark Tank, one of the loudest arenas in all of hockey.
There, they will not have the benefit of being comfortable in their environment. There, Ken Hitchcock will not be able to masterfully match lines and centremen. There, his team will not have the advantage of last set on the draws.
In St. Louis, the second-best team in the league in the circle lost three more draws in the first game and seven more in the second. San Jose also turned the puck over one more time and was out-shot in both games.
But, they did attempt more shots in Game 2, missing the net four more times. They were also forced to play the Blues physical game, and hit back registering one more hit in the game than the Blues.
All of those fights and cheap shots back and forth on Saturday are not Sharks hockey. They are designed to beat you with skill, and that is where their edge over St. Louis remains. If they play their best at home, they should win.
The best thing the Sharks can do is stick to their game. If the Andy McDonald wants to slew-foot Logan Couture, respond with a goal, not an elbow to the back of Scott Nichol's head. Then maybe it does not escalate into that sucker punch that you do not like...