Now seems like an odd time to write an article about why Sharks fans should be optimistic about the upcoming playoffs.
The Sharks are coming off their worst loss of the season to a division rival who stands to miss the playoffs, and are in the throes of a three-game losing skid which saw them miss an opportunity to sweep the Anaheim Ducks and exact a small measure of revenge for their playoff embarrassment last year.
Still, the last time this team got embarrassed like they did in Dallas, they rebounded to win three in a row. They also have not lost three in a row in regulation all year, so odds seem in favor of a turnaround before the playoffs.
It can’t get any worse than last night and the drubbing could be just the wake-up call this veteran team needs.
Despite their recent struggles and highly publicized “inconsistency”, the Sharks have shown several signs overall this season that this squad is different than teams in years past. Can this mean this could be “the year”? Might long-suffering San Jose hockey fans see their beloved teal-clad team finally reach the zenith they have longed for?
Only time will tell, but here are three reasons to be optimistic:
I have to say I never really got around to liking this little “motto,” and it still brings a cringe to my face when I hear people say it, but I think the idea behind it is true and keenly important.
Past teams were constantly criticized for not having enough “fire”, “fight”, and “grit”, but the moves GM Doug Wilson made in the offseason, on the third and fourth lines specifically, addressed that in a very real way.
The trade of Jody Shelley (not literally but essentially a swap for Niklas Wallin, as the Sharks gave up and got back a low-round draft choice in either case) was curious and hurt the team a little in this category. All I can figure is that it was a preemptive strike to clear cap room and hang on to more key players in the off-season.
The Sharks have unquestionably shown more resolve in games against “pesky” teams this year and have stuck up for one another much more than in the past. They have a variety of guys who can drop the gloves and role players like Scott Nichol and Manny Malhotra, who just constantly pester other teams the way Sharks fans have been used to seeing their boys in teal get pestered in the past. That should bode very well for the Sharks come the playoffs.
Another knock on the Sharks in recent years has been disappointing play from their bona fide superstars.
While it remains to be seen how the Sharks’ biggest names will perform in the playoffs this year (and yes I know that is all that really matters), early returns seem encouraging.
The Sharks’ “Team Canada” line is producing offense at a clip that might even be exceeding expectations, whether they are playing together on the ice or not. The trio of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and newcomer Dany Heatley has put up some impressive numbers to be sure.
Marleau has responded in spades to losing the captain’s “C” with a career year of 41 goals and counting. With Dany Heatley sitting on 36, there is a great chance the team will have two 40-goal scorers by year’s end. Every member of the trio has a point total over 70 and they give the Sharks top-five league-wide representation in goals, assists, points, power play goals, short-handed goals, and game-winning goals.
They’re not just scoring, but scoring at the right time. Marleau and Heatley have combined for 14 game-winners so far, which is tops for a tandem of teammates.
Dan Boyle is top-five in ice time and Evgeni Nabokov is top-five in save percentage. The only bona fide star having a clear off-year is Rob Blake. With a productive regular season followed by a playoff burnout last year, one can only hope Blake could experience the opposite trend this year.
And it does not stop with the superstars. The Sharks have contributions up and down their lineup with a total of eight players with 10 or more goals and 11 players with 20 or more points. They also have good organizational depth, with a revolving door of AHLers coming in and making real contributions on a regular basis.
Again, if we look past the immediate disappointment of the current struggles, one will see this year’s Sharks have found ways to scratch out wins in games that past teams would have folded in.
The three back-to-back-to-back comebacks after the near comeback against New Jersey coming off the Olympic Break should speak to their ability to bounce back, even within a game. These impressive and exciting wins should be a great source of confidence to draw upon should they find themselves in a tight spot in the playoffs.
It is true they have problems to address witnessed by the fact they found themselves in those holes to begin with. It is also true that those same problems came to a head Tuesday night in Dallas, resulting in a drubbing. I will not deny that. But the fact that they found a way to come back, from as big a deficit as 0-3 late in games, speaks to the team’s resolve. That is simply something we have not seen by and large from past squads.
And that drubbing might prove to be the best thing to restore their focus.
Another encouraging sign has been the 2009-2010 Sharks’ ability to solve troubling goalies. For years now Sharks fans have seen game after game where the Sharks pile on 40 or more shots and the opposing goalie has the game of his life and beats them 2-1 or 1-0.
This year, while that has happened a few times, the Sharks have generally found a way to get past these pesky netminders. They beat Carey Price, they beat Steve Mason (granted they had been shut out by him in the previous meeting), and they have even had pretty good success against Jonas Hiller, who so perplexed them in the playoffs last year.
Bottom line: This year’s team has found ways to win that past teams simply did not.
Are there still questions? Of course there are. The Sharks have not put a solid 60-minute effort together in quite a while. Their passes have not been as sharp as they should be, they have been allowing far too many shots to get blocked, they have turned the puck over way too much, and they have been failing to dump pucks in deep and set up offensive cycles.
Still, these issues are mechanical and correctable with practice and focus. They are in a far better position trying to fix these types of problems than trying to address the intangible issues of “resolve”, “grit”, and “fire” that have plagued them in previous years.
If the team can regain their focus in the next three weeks and right the ship, Sharks fans could see some silver parading down West Santa Clara Street this June.
Let us also hope winning begets more winning. After all, the Sharks had more Olympic medalists (five) than any other NHL team. Hopefully, those medals are merely appetizers.