For better or worse, this past weekend saw things work out exactly as many San Jose Sharks fans had hoped.
The Sharks slipped past the Cinderella Phoenix Coyotes and earned two points in a shoot-out win, capped by a deciding goal from emerging AHL call-up and former first round pick Logan Couture. The win earned them a point total of 113 on the season.
The following afternoon, many Sharks fans found themselves in the odd situation of rooting for the Detroit Red Wings, as the defending Western Conference Champions took on the last remaining threat to Sharks finishing with the top seed in the West, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Former Shark Brad Stuart tallied in overtime to deliver the Red Wings a victory in the regular season finale and earn them the West’s No. 5 seed. This limited the Blackhawks to 112 points on the year, thus relegating them to the No. 2 seed and crowning the Sharks as the top seed in the West for the second straight year.
The Sharks avoided the President’s Trophy this season (more often a jinx than a stepping stone to the Stanley Cup, at least in the same season), but will still enjoy home ice advantage in any potential series except against the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Earning the top seed in the West also guaranteed another fact for the Sharks, one which many fans had at the forefront of their minds in recent weeks: they will not face the Detroit Red Wings in the first round.
With Detroit lingering around the eight seed for much of the last several months of the season, many Sharks fans worried about falling into a another situation where the team drew a veteran, experienced, star-studded team as the No. 8 seed in the first round.
After being embarrassed by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round a year ago, the prospect of facing another perennial power who, due to injuries and inconsistency, snuck into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed hung over most Northern California hockey fans like a dark cloud.
Now that the Sharks have avoided this specter, we are left to ask: Is this really for the best?
While the fans were largely against the idea, many analysts have pointed out quite astutely that facing an elite team like Detroit in the first round could actually have been a great thing for the Sharks.
True, it ended messily for them last year. But the Sharks learned from that experience and built this year’s team to bring home the hardware, no matter who they had to beat in the playoffs. The acquisitions of Malhotra, Nichol, and Ortmeyer have paid huge dividends toward making the team “more gritty, less pretty” and tougher on any opponent they face.
Odds are if you do reach the ultimate goal and bring home the Stanley Cup, you will have to beat the best teams in the playoffs anyway. In a league as parity-filled as the NHL, there are no easy matchups in the first round and despite strong play overall, the Sharks have certainly been guilty of playing down to level of their competition for stretches of 2009-2010.
Playing a weaker, less polished opponent in the first round could instill the Sharks with a false sense of confidence, allowing them to get away with mistakes a stronger opponent would capitalize on and reinforcing bad habits. Plus, it is not at all unlikely that the Sharks could host the Wings in the second round.
With all that considered, what do the Sharks stand to gain by earning a first round berth against the Colorado Avalanche?
Sharks fans can take solace in the fact that there is an upside to the matchup. The Sharks played well head to head against the upstart Avalanche this season, going 2-1-1 in four games and tagging workhorse goaltender Craig Anderson for 13 goals (3.25 GAA).
The Sharks have been gaining momentum since pulling out of their swoon in March (a multi-month span of sub-standard play which ultimately culminated in a six-game losing streak). The Avs have been on a steady slide down the Western Conference Standings for months, after holding the top spot early in the year.
Unlike last season, where the Sharks limped to a President’s Trophy title in the last week of the season, this year’s Sharks enter the playoffs playing well.
Team Teal is 8-1-1 in their last ten games. Patrick Marleau is looking to build on the momentum of a career year in which he scored 44 goals after losing the Captaincy in training camp. Evgeni Nabokov seems to be peaking at the right time: 4-0-1 in his last five games with a .922 save percentage on the year, his best mark as a pro.
Still, the Sharks have yet to reach the pinnacle of their potential. They continue to allow the odd turnover leading to an opposing scoring chance. They continue to experience lapses in communication, causing trouble for them on the ice. Most importantly, the much-discussed 60-minute effort continues to elude them.
The Sharks surrendered a 2-0 lead to their first-round opponents just over a week ago in Denver, ultimately losing in overtime, 5-4. They improved later that week against third-seeded Vancouver, dominating the Canucks for the first two periods, and staking themselves to a 4-0 lead. They got sucked into a bevy of penalties midway through the third period, however, allowing two goals before hanging on to win 4-2.
Their final tune up against the fourth-seeded Coyotes was a hard-fought victory, but one where they surrendered two separate one-goal leads.
The first-round matchup against Colorado could be just the opportunity the Sharks need to put the finishing touches on their game and prepare for the later rounds. The Avs are definitely talented enough to challenge the Sharks, which should keep them focused and help them continue to progress their game, but not so talented that they stand to wear the Sharks down like Calgary in the first round in 2008.
If the Sharks can take advantage of this chance to hone their skills, they could be firing on all cylinders against whomever they face in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. The last time The Sharks faced the Avs in the playoffs, they advanced further than they ever had before: all the way to the Western Conference Finals. If history were to repeat itself in that respect, it would have the Sharks playing for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
So get those playoff beards growing. This should be fun!