The Sharks’ recent swoon has brought about harsh criticism and more than a little speculation across various sports media outlets that this is simply 2010’s beginning of the end of another strong regular season bid destined to result in an early playoff exit.
However, there are some indications that things in the South Bay may not be as dismal as some prognosticators of doom (and that is meant toward nobody in particular) would have you believe.
The Sharks' story is not unique: “a highly-touted, supremely talented, and heavily favored hockey team struggles mightily approaching elimination play in a major championship tournament.”
Where have I heard this before? The last several years in San Jose, yes; but more positively, this sounds an awful lot like the story of Team Canada in 2010.
OK, take a deep breath. I am not suggesting the 82-game NHL season can be directly compared to the Olympic Tournament, which spans fewer than 10 games.
Nor am I saying that the differences between a single-elimination tournament like the Olympics and the best-of-seven format in the Stanley Cup Playoffs are insignificant.
I know the Sharks have neither the raw talent nor the incredible top-to-bottom depth of Team Canada. I also know that the tournament-wide talent distribution is far more even in NHL than the Olympics.
Even with all these qualifiers, however, Team Canada’s Olympic experience in Vancouver is an interesting microcosm of the Sharks season so far.
This has been touted as a make or break year for San Jose. After being embarrassed by Anaheim last April, and knowing that many of their key players will become free agents or are likely to retire at the end of the 2010 season, the pressure to win (and win big) this year has never been higher for the Sharks.
Team Canada had extreme pressure on them as well. With the Olympics in Canada, where hockey is king, coming off a Torino tournament where they failed to medal, another disappointing showing by the team in red and white would have led to absolute bedlam.
The qualifying rounds of the Olympics for Canada also saw some of the same focus and execution issues for Canada that have led to the Sharks’ recent skid.
Canada looked impressive against the vastly outmatched Norwegians, but needed a shootout to beat a tough but thoroughly out-classed Swiss team, before suffering a devastating loss to the rival U.S.
Speculation was rampant as to the chances Canada stood of recovering, especially with a road that stood to run through some daunting competition. Sound familiar?
A few key line changes and a new goalie later, Canada stormed past the Germans and the revered Russians before beating a determined Slovak team for a rematch with Team USA. The rest is history.
But with four Sharks filling key roles on that gold-medal squad, could that history repeat itself?
Of course it could, the real question is whether it is likely to. Some indications point toward yes.
This year’s Sharks squad came into the regular season knowing it had to answer some tough questions if it finally wanted to get the proverbial monkey of its collective back.
Would the Sharks' offseason acquisitions add the grit that team executives advertised? Could their stars play with more heart? Could the team be more physical? Could they finally find ways to beat vexing goalies like Jonas Hiller?
So far, the answers have been yes (by and large). Malhotra, Nichol, and Ortmeyer have added an unmistakable edge to the team’s play that has been missing in past years.
Marleau is having a career year, and newcomer Dany Heatley has been a fantastic addition. They consistently outhit their competition, and they have found ways to consistently score on Jonas Hiller and other goalies who had seemed to have the Sharks’ number in years past.
Why then is it so ridiculous to suggest this recent five-game skid might be just one last hurdle for this team to clear on the potential path to glory?
This is not blind optimism. I know their play has ranged from sub-par to abysmal in stretches dating back to before the Olympic break.
But the fact that they were able to hold onto their division and conference leads through this struggle has to be worth something.
Past Sharks teams have suffered from issues of wholesale approach: too passive, too finesse-oriented, not enough passion. This year’s struggles have been more mechanical: focus, communication, execution. It is much easier to correct the latter than the former.
If the Sharks can band together and right the ship before April 10, this could be perfect boost to thrust them into the playoffs at the top of their game. Logic and history are on their side.
In a league as parity-filled as the NHL, it is difficult to sustain any streak (winning or losing) for very long. You do not want to limp into the playoffs, but you also do not want to peak too early. This is not the worst time for the team to face this adversity.
After all, since 2000, every Stanley Cup Champion has experienced a swoon (which I will define as no consecutive wins over at least a five-game span) at some point after the calendar changed to January. Even the mighty Detroit Red Wings under the legendary Scotty Bowman were certainly no exception.
In 2002, en route to the Stanley Cup, the Red Wings failed to post a single win in April and lost their first two games to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs. The Anaheim Ducks, in 2007, posted losing records in January and February.
The Sharks could still lose another game in March and finish with a winning record for the month (and that is straight wins and losses, no hand-waving with OT/SO losses).
Recent games have shown glimmers of hope that the Sharks may be figuring things out. They still need to tighten up defense and goaltending and limit costly mistakes, but there is no reason to believe that all hope is already lost.
As Todd McLellan continues to tweak the lines, Sharks fans can only hope he stumbles on the formula to break the Sharks out of this slump. It has happened before, it can happen again.
A minor adjustment could lead to regaining the focus that has eluded the team for months. If they find it, San Jose fans could be in for something special this June.