The San Jose Sharks managed to break out of their worst swoon in 13 years in time for the final push to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
However, it has not exactly been smooth waters in San Jose since then.
The Sharks have played a much better brand of hockey overall than they had in the several months preceding the swoon. They also managed to shutout Dallas with a solid performance on home ice as Evgeni Nabokov earned his milestone 50th career shutout.
But there have still been some aspects of the Sharks’ collective game that has given fans and experts alike some angst as the season draws to a close.
The Sharks have still struggled with consistency, playing fundamentally sound hockey for longer stretches than they had been, but still failing to pull together the proverbial, elusive 60-minute effort their pundits have been waiting to see.
The Sharks have still been in the business of staking themselves to multi-goal leads, only to see the advantage evaporate before the third period, or digging themselves a hole and having to climb out. Turnovers have remained a problem, resulting in odd-man rushes for the opposition and sterling scoring changes in their defensive zone.
For these reasons, the injury to Joe Thornton last Saturday brought about much speculation around the NHL community.
Thornton has been the leading scorer for the Sharks every year he has been with the team, except 2005 when he joined the team midway through November. The Sharks top line centerman has been a leader on and off the ice and has been reliable and durable, never missing a game in teal before this week. He has played in 398 consecutive games total—dating back to his days as a Boston Bruin.
However, when Jumbo fell awkwardly into the boards in a game last weekend against Vancouver and had to be helped to his skates so he could limp off the ice, it looked certain that the Sharks would finally have to face the reality of playing without Jumbo Joe, at least for a few games.
Most people recognized this injury for what it was: a good opportunity for secondary scoring to sense some pressure and make some strides moving toward the playoffs, a chance for Thornton to get some rest and hopefully return hungry and energized, and a chance for younger players like Pavelski, Setoguchi, Couture, and McGinn to play a bigger role.
The general consensus was (rightly) that this injury would be good for the team. The injury would help the team grow and improve. But many assumed this growth would not come without a cost.
Most people assumed that the Sharks would struggle without Thornton, likely dropping games to teams desperately playing for the last playoff berth or trying to improve their position. The Sharks had long since clinched a playoff berth—so there was no drama about the injury putting that in jeopardy—but many thought this would hurt the Sharks’ ultimate playoff seed.
Experts and fans guessed that this injury might be the opening the Phoenix Coyotes needed to sneak back into the top spot in the Pacific Division, relegating the Sharks to the fourth seed. At the very least, there was no way a San Jose team sans Thornton could fend off the Blackhawks for the top seed in the West, right?
So far, so wrong.
The Sharks are 2-1 in Joe Thornton’s absence. While their play has been far from stellar (probably due to a combination of apprehension and odd line combinations), they have found a way to stay on top. They stand three points ahead of Chicago and have the division all but clinched, with a six point lead over Phoenix and only four games to play.
More importantly, the Sharks have been finding ways to score tough, ugly goals when they need them. Setoguchi’s two markers against Colorado and Couture’s game-winner in Minnesota are prime examples. These are the types of goals that long, successful Stanley Cup Playoff runs are built around.
Thornton remains day-to-day and does not appear to be in jeopardy of missing any playoff time. Whether he will be 100 percent come mid-April is another question, but a week or more of rest this late in the season could be the perfect breather to help him finally shake his history of poor playoff performance.
Even if Jumbo is not quite at 100 percent, lower expectations stemming from a recent injury could help alleviate the pressure he usually feels and allow him to have a break-out performance (a la Alex Rodriguez). Only time will tell if such a scenario plays out, but it could happen.
This experience has certainly helped the Sharks learn something about themselves, their will, their resolve, and their depth. Their ability to hang on to the top seed in the West through this injury is certainly no guarantee of what they can expect in the playoffs, but it certainly should be a positive sign.