Since the turn of the century, playoff hockey in the Silicon Valley resembled plot lines from the greatest sitcom of all time. No, not Curb Your Enthusiasm , but another Larry David product: Seinfeld .
The basic premise of Seinfeld was once aptly summed up by a former roommate of mine as, “Anything that can go wrong, does go wrong.”
In the three losses, it seemed that everything that could go wrong was still going wrong: A deflection goal with less than a minute off Rob Blake’s skate in Game One against Colorado, a redirected dump pass from Dan Boyle beating Evgeni Nabokov in a scoreless overtime game in Game Three against Colorado, and a game where nobody in teal showed up until the first intermission in Game Four against Detroit.
However, in their eight wins, the Sharks have found ways to live up to their playoff motto of “Overcome” and put their dismal playoff past behind them.
They are playing with extreme confidence. They are getting varied scoring up and down the lineup.
When first-round Conn Smythe-lock Joe Pavelski’s magic finally faded in Game Three of the conference semifinals, the much-maligned tandem of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau stepped up in a big way and combined on the game-winning goal in overtime to stake the Sharks to what proved to be an insurmountable series lead.
The Sharks are 5-1 at home and 2-1 in games when they have the chance to eliminate an opponent.
Nabokov and the rest of the Sharks rebounded from a Game Four drubbing to play one of their most inspired games of the playoffs in Game Five at home. They overcame a stellar performance by Calder candidate goalie Jimmy Howard, which in previous years probably would have stymied them.
The Sharks finally crossed a major threshold, beating the Red Wings at their own style of play. They disappointed the experts by not only advancing past the Red Wings, but avoiding the epic collapse many were hinting toward after the Game Four debacle.
In the end it was a bittersweet handshake for Mike Babcock as he tipped his cap to his former assistant Todd McLellan, then patted Thornton on the back with class and quipped, “Go get it done!”
Things look VERY good for the San Jose Sharks, as they have been resting and practicing since Sunday, watching their potential opponents in the next round continue to battle it out, and knowing that no other semifinal series will end in fewer than six games.
Not only do the Sharks have the luxury of rest moving forward (something they missed by losing Game Five to Colorado after being up 3-0 in the second round in 2004), but both the Chicago Blackhawks and the Vancouver Canucks have shown severe vulnerabilities.
Neither potential opponent presents as fundamentally sound a challenge as the Red Wings.
So what’s the biggest challenge to the Sharks going all the way?
Setting their accomplishments of the first two rounds aside and continuing to play with the same drive, resolve, and focus.
Beating the Red Wings was an emotional high, a measuring stick, and a great stepping stone. While the Red Wings may have represented the most fundamentally sound challenge to the Sharks, the 1994 NFC Championship Game (where it was commonly known that the winner was a lock to win the Super Bowl), this series was not.
Judging by the local approach to this series, and the reaction to the emotional win, one might think that the Sharks had already reached their goal. But advancing to the conference finals is only half the battle. The Sharks may be up midway through the second period, but the outcome is still far from decided.
The Sharks have done an excellent job of putting the past behind them this year and ignoring the negative speculation swirling around them at every turn. Now the challenge becomes setting aside this recent playoff success, and regaining their focus toward their ultimate goal.
Take a closer look at the photo of the Sharks bench as time expired in Game Five.
Bracketed by a sea of overwhelming elation, one thing stands out to me. At the center of the photo, Sharks head coach Todd McLellan stands with a focused, stoic expression the likes of which the Bay Area has not seen since gentlemen named Bill Walsh and George Seifert.
McLellan has taken heavy criticism for his nearly utter lack of emotion (not unlike Patrick Marleau). But it could be that very unwavering calm in a swirling frenzy of emotion that allows the Sharks to refocus, recenter, and reload for the next round.
Todd McLellan will not worry about whether the Sharks match up better against Chicago or Vancouver.
Todd McLellan will not worry about whether the Sharks will get rusty with too much time off.
Todd McLellan will not worry about whether the Sharks will suffer an emotional letdown after finally beating the Red Wings, or about anything else outside the team’s control.
With him to guide them, neither should the Sharks.
Keep the Faith!