The San Jose Sharks have one more chance to win a Stanley Cup
The San Jose Sharks went into the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs as just the sixth seed in the Western Conference. No postseason team had fewer regulation and overtime wins, and there is no shootout in May.
Before too much is made of winning a game on the road against a division winner, we must remember that happened in 2012. They proceeded to lose the next four in which they were more or less dominated by a younger, hungrier St. Louis Blues team.
It was a fitting end to a disappointing season that saw the four-time Pacific Division winners coming off consecutive conference final appearances barely get into the playoffs. It was a season that involved three 15-game hot streaks surrounded by some of the worst play in the NHL.
How much better is this team? Just as last season, they only clinched a Stanley Cup playoff berth with two games to go, albeit in less than 60 percent of a season. On the heels of two seven-game winning streaks surrounded mostly by poor play, they only finished one seed higher.
Despite all of that, they have five reasons to be confident they can go on a deep playoff run this year.
There is always next year. It is what 29 of 30 fans tell themselves every year their team fails to win the Stanley Cup.
It is not something anyone associated with the San Jose Sharks can say. Because they are a spend-to-the-cap team and payrolls will have to drop in 2013-14, this team could be very different after this summer.
At the very least, one of the big three of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle will have to go. The best-case scenario might be to lose only the soon-to-be 37-year-old Boyle and use their amnesty on Martin Havlat. That would probably leave enough room to re-sign all others or comparable replacements.
That still means the blue line cornerstone of this team over Todd McLellan's entire tenure is gone, as is a skilled forward. They would have to win games 2-1, and that is not going to win the Stanley Cup.
That means even whatever survives of this Sharks team will have to wait another year, when most of the core becomes free agents. While it is hard to project future caps, it seems likely that at least one other player from the core would be lost next summer.
Thus, this really is this team's last chance. Whatever team can get back to the top after next season may only feature a few players from the current core.
The Sharks are a very good team when playing what McLellan calls desperate hockey. With their very legacy at stake, they should know they cannot take a shift off, much less a period.
Before the Los Angeles Kings won the 2012 Stanley Cup as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, no team lower than fifth under the current playoff format had won the cup.
Not one of those teams was further than two wins from a Stanley Cup. Only two of them were more than a goal away.
Going beyond the lowest seeds to other non-division winners, nine finalists in the last nine playoffs have been non-division winners. That is a really good percentage over a long-enough period to be at least significant.
The Sharks are as capable as anyone of taking that spot. The margin between them and the fourth-seeded St. Louis Blues is just three points with the additional randomness of a condensed 2013 NHL season, so they are basically as good as many past finalists.
No one should be afraid to go into the Stanley Cup playoffs as a low seed anymore.
The San Jose Sharks go into the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs on a 12-3-1 roll before a game at the end of a grueling schedule and a season finale that they may have even wanted to lose. They were winning when it really mattered long before it mattered for several other teams.
One of the main reasons for this change is the team was both shaken up and got faster with the trades of Douglas Murray, Michal Handzus and Ryane Clowe. They also split up their best forwards, moving Joe Pavelski down to center the third line.
Plus, this is not San Jose's first rodeo. And while they have never won the conference, only two teams have advanced to as many conference finals since Doug Wilson's first season as general manager in 2003-04. Only one of them, the Detroit Red Wings, has played in more playoff games over that period.
The Sharks are playing well enough and know how to get things done in the first two rounds. That makes a deep playoff run a definite possibility.
While that is an over-applied cliche, there is little grounds to refute that being stronger in one's own end is preferable. Balance is important, but Los Angeles was another low-scoring team to find its offense in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
On that basis, the San Jose Sharks are more built to succeed on this basis than teams before. They still have the scoring talent as their Pacific Division rivals do, and it can awaken at the right time. While it sleeps, they play such strong defense that they can ride slumps out.
Only the Toronto Maple Leafs blocked more shots than the Sharks, who were also fifth in the NHL in takeaways. Back-stopping that defense is Vezina Trophy candidate Antti Niemi, who stopped more shots than all but two goalies in 2013.
That is why only five teams allowed fewer goals. When you can keep the puck out of the net, you always have a chance to catch a break.
The San Jose Sharks played very well in 2013 against every Western Conference team except the Chicago Blackhawks, against whom they dropped three in regulation over 17 days.
They swept the Vancouver Canucks, taking the one on the road in a shootout and winning both at home in regulation. They split shootouts with the Detroit Red Wings and won the extra home game in regulation.
Thanks to the extra home game, they had a 2-1-0 record and 10-5 scoring edge over the Minnesota Wild. Within the division, the Anaheim Ducks lost three of five head-to-head matchups despite having the extra home game.
Even teams they lost the season series with were expected. They had one less point head-to-head vs. the Los Angeles Kings, but the last game they gave away was meaningless. The St. Louis Blues benefited from an extra home game and still only won the season series by one point.
That shows that the only team they will have trouble matching up against is Chicago. If the Presidents' Trophy weighs them down as it has recent winners or if Anaheim loses in the first round, San Jose would not face this poor matchup in the first two rounds of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs.