It is a strange thought to consider that the top-seeded team in the Western Conference and second-best team in the NHL in the regular season could in anyway be considered an underdog.
Still, in many ways, the 2010 San Jose Sharks ought to be.
The Sharks really are not facing the Colorado Avalanche in the first round, but the lingering ghosts of last year’s first round embarrassment against the eight-seeded Anaheim Ducks, piled on top of a mountain of pressure and expectations, and an ever-public franchise-long catalogue of playoff disappointments.
It may not be fair to say that most experts expect the Sharks to fail in the playoffs, but suffice it to say that most would likely not be surprised to see that happen.
This perspective generated a ground swell of negativity following the Sharks’ disappointing Game One and Game Three losses to the Avalanche. While they didn’t play particularly poorly in either game, they could not find a way to beat a vastly out-matched team, conjuring a chorus of “Here they go again's!"
The Sharks’ effort seems to be there this postseason: they generated more than 50 shots in back to back games in Games Two and Three, fought back five separate times to win Game Two, and dominated play in Game Three despite a fluky goal to lose it in overtime.
This was followed by a tight but inspired performance in Game Four to even the series and win back home ice advantage the rest of the way.
Still, the play of the Sharks’ top players has been uninspired to say the least. Marleau, Thornton and Heatley have combined for a whopping four points (all assists) in four games. More tellingly, every interview with a member of the “Big Line” seems to parrot the standard party line of “if we play our game, and stick to the system, we’ll be fine.”
Yes, yes, I heard that bit last year.
Rob Blake and Dan Boyle have been slightly more realistic in postgame interviews following losses. Then again, they both contributed directly to the losing goal in each game.
Something needs to be done to inspire the Sharks’ top players to elevate their games for the rest of the series. But how does one try to motivate elite players on a top-seeded team facing a vastly inferior opponent?
Bill Walsh was a master doing just that, and I think Todd McLellan ought to take a cue from “The Genius.”
Bill Walsh would vilify the Bay Area media and make them out to be the true enemy of the 49ers. “They want you to lose, they want you to lose so @#$-damned bad because it makes a better story for them.” It was true then, and I believe it is true for the Sharks now.
If the Sharks were not known as NHL choke artists, there would be little drama in a first round series against Colorado. Trying to upset the expectations (and hopes?) of the local media, rather than focusing on disparate on-ice aspects, could be just the mindset the Sharks’ best players need to push their games over the top for the rest of the series.
It no longer is the Sharks against the Avalanche, it becomes the Sharks against the hype.
The Sharks have showed an encouraging resolve in keeping the Avalanche from taking a controlling lead in the series, despite the fact that every bounce and call has seemed to go Colorado’s way. Young players like Setoguchi and Pavelski seem to have the fire to take this team far. That now needs to spread to Thornton, Marleau, Heatley, and Nabokov.
In order to win the series, the Sharks will need to do something they have failed to do thus far: win back to back games. McLellan can use this as a motivation point for the team approaching Game Five.
“Everyone expects you to drop this game and give the Avs control of the series again. Now is the time to show what you’re made of. Let’s put this series away in six!”
This could help propel the Sharks past the Avalanche and into the second round. With this mindset, it really does not matter who they face next, they are trying to beat expectations.
Keep the Faith!