San Jose Sharks: Rising Expectations

Andy Bensch@@AndyBenschSenior Writer IJanuary 22, 2009

For the overwhelming majority of 17 seasons, San Jose Sharks fans were content with their team just simply making the playoffs.

In the recent past, fans were content with winning just one series. But ever since the Sharks made their first appearance in the conference final back in '03-'04, expectations have been set at the highest level.  

Win the Stanley Cup.

However, the greatest aspect of this expectation is that nobody is saying "Stanley Cup or bust".  Sharks fans understand how difficult it is to win the Cup because they know the game and the league quite well. It is quite surprisingly actually, since being in warm-weathered California, and especially the greater San Francisco Bay Area that the Sharks have such a knowledgeable fan base.

With the 49ers, Raiders, A's, Giants and Warriors all representing the Bay Area, one wouldn't expect hockey to be such a phenomenon in the region.  

That being said, Bay Area fans are used to being treated to high-quality sports teams, and for the past three-four years, the Sharks have been the best team in the region. They are the only team to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons in that span.

But this season for San Jose has been like no other previous season in their history. The Sharks have the second best record in NHL history at the all-star break. 

This year the Sharks have Stanley Cup rings in their locker room, something they have rarely had before. They added Dan Boyle, Brad Lukowich, Rob Blake and the recently called up Claude Lemieux to their lineup this season, all of whom have rings. 

Add them all up individually, and they have eight rings amongst the four of them. (The article photo shows long-time King and Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake skating out from underneath the shark mouth, one of the best pre-game rituals in the league.)

Their current system under rookie head coach Todd McLellan is unlike any system the Sharks have ever had before. The two most famous Sharks coaches before McLellan, Ron Wilson and Daryl Sutter, never had the quality of offensive defensman McLellan does in Blake and Boyle. Those Sharks teams never saw the offensive production from the blue line that the current Sharks are experiencing right now.  

Not only does San Jose boast two of the top offensive defensman in the league in Blake and Boyle, but their remaining starters on the blue-line each bring a different element to the team. 

German-born Christian Ehrhoff has the hardest left-handed shot on the team and has the speed to match top-tier defensrman like Calgary's Dion Phaneuf and Chicago's Brian Campbell. 

Marc-Eduard Vlasic is just 21 years old and, playing in his third season in the NHL, leads the Sharks in ice time because he is arguably the best defensive defenseman on the roster. Don't forget about Brad Lukowich; when healthy, the former cup-winner with Dallas and Tampa Bay has a savvy veteran presence and poise with the puck.

And last but not least, Douglas Murray, the 6'4", 245-pound Swedish defenseman, is arguably the most pounding blue liner in the NHL. Even when an opposing fore-checker is coming in at full-speed to check Murray into the boards, the fore-checker is the one who will almost always hit the deck.

When healthy, the San Jose defense has no holes. And even if an opposing team slips by the Sharks defense, they have a certain world-class goaltender between the pipes, Evgeni Nabokov. Over the last few seasons Nabokov had his No. 1 spot in jeopardy before the trade of Vesa Toskala, but now Nabby is playing the best hockey of his career.

The Sharks have their top two forward lines set in stone.  Marleau-Thornton-Setoguchi and Michalek-Pavelski-Clowe have tremendous chemistry and are the go-to lines for San Jose. Having two solid offensive lines is key, similar to the cup-winning Ducks team that boasted lines of Kunitz-McDonald-Selanne and Penner-Getzlaf-Perry.

Former Sharks coach Ron Wilson juggled his team's lines every other game. But this year's team has chemistry and Stanley Cup experience to go along with a stout defensive group and world-class forwards. The Sharks haven't had that before.

It's safe to say that the Sharks have never put out a roster quite similar to this year's squad. And even though the rising expectations have been set at a Stanley Cup victory for some time now, this is the first year that they've had this deep of a roster on both ends of the ice.

And in speaking for most Sharks fans, no regular season has felt this special half-way into it. There is a different feel this year, and even though I really dislike the cliche "this is the year," well, for the Sharks, it might just be that year.