The theme of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the San Jose Sharks has been established as “Overcome.”
Since returning from the Olympic break, they have overcome a lot.
The Sharks were able to break out of their longest losing streak in over a decade and start playing great hockey in time for the playoffs.
They survived a stint without alternate captain and team leader Joe Thornton and still managed to secure the top overall seed in the Western Conference (despite speculation that the injury would result in the Phoenix Coyotes surpassing the Sharks for the Pacific Division Title).
Then came their first round match up with a familiar playoff opponent, the Colorado Avalanche.
The Sharks had to overcome an injury to star forward Dany Heatley, a last-minute goal in Game One, five separate deficits in Game Two to tie the series, and an overtime stunner in a Game Three where they statistically dominated the Avalanche but still fell behind 2-1 in the series.
San Jose overcame the incredibly stellar play of yet another relative unknown goalie in Craig Anderson, finally solving him in the last three games of the series to the tune of 10 goals. They overcame series deficits of 1-0 and 2-1 caused by little more than bad bounces before finally wresting control of the series and winning in six games.
Oh yeah, and the Sharks overcame the doubt of their critics, hockey experts, and perhaps even some of their fans at every step along the way.
Now the San Jose Sharks face a bigger challenge, as they find themselves swimming in uncharted waters against another familiar foe.
In their 19-year history, the Sharks have faced the Detroit Red Wings in three separate playoff series. They are 1-2 in series against them and 6-11 in games.
However, they have never been favored in a series against Detroit.
In 1994, the upstart Sharks made a name for their young franchise by defeating the top-seeded Red Wings in the first round on a Game Seven goal by current radio color analyst Jamie Baker that is still considered by many to be the biggest goal in team history.
The other two series ended less glamorously for the Sharks. They were swept by the Wings the following season in 1995. Despite being less than a minute and a single Kyle McClaren clearing attempt away from a commanding 3-1 series lead in 2007 (their only prior second-round tilt with Detroit), the Sharks ended up losing that series in six games.
The Sharks were not technically favored in that series, but many experts had them as the smart pick to advance. Barry Melrose had even picked them before the season began to finally win the Stanley Cup.
Now it seems the roles are reversed.
The Sharks are now the technical favorite, and they will enjoy home-ice advantage in a one-seed versus five-seed matchup. However, as soon as Detroit had shaken hands with the Coyotes and punched their second-round tickets, the experts on Versus were already anointing the Wings as the odds-on favorites to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Let us hope that like the roles, the outcome is also the reverse of 2007.
The Red Wings present a formidable challenge to the Sharks but certainly not an insurmountable one.
The Wings were far from dominant in their series against Phoenix, as they surrendered more than 2.5 goals per game and failed to close out the Coyotes in six games at home when they had the chance.
Their chances rest largely on rookie goalie Jimmy Howard. The Calder Trophy candidate had an impressive regular season with a .924 save percentage and 2.24 GAA. But, he has been more suspect under the bright lights of playoff contention, watching his save percentage slip to .919 and his GAA rise to 2.59.
By comparison, Evgeni Nabokov has elevated his play in the postseason, with an impressive .926 save percentage and 1.76 GAA.
Should Howard falter, the task will be up to veteran Chris Osgood. Though he has the skills and experience to take the Red Wings back to the Stanley Cup Finals, he has seen precious little action this season, and it would be anyone’s guess as to how he would fair.
The Sharks are not without their issues.
Joe Thornton and the entire “Big Line” continue to post disappointing offensive numbers, with the scoring being carried by younger players on lower lines. The Sharks will face significant difficulty if Thornton, Marleau, and Heatley cannot ignite offensively in the second round. I still believe splitting them up is the best solution.
The Red Wings have a veteran-filled roster with tons of championship credentials and will definitely give the Sharks all they can handle in the second round.
Still, the hopes of some Sharks fans that Phoenix would oust Detroit in the first round and prevent the Sharks’ road to glory from running through Hockeytown is not the right approach.
In a season where the Sharks have had to overcome so much, they should not hope for the easy way out.
This year has been about battling the ghosts of seasons past, and the Sharks have overcome a lot. If they can overcome Detroit, there might not be any stopping them.
Keep the Faith!