San Jose Sharks: Definitely New, but not Necessarily Improved

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San Jose Sharks: Definitely New, but not Necessarily Improved
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
The addition of Antero Niittymaki in net has been a pleasant surprise in 2010-2011, but how long can he carry the Sharks?

The San Jose Sharks have long struggled to shake the stigma of being a regular-season dynamo that crumbles when the postseason rolls around. The team has customarily jumped out to huge leads in the Pacific Division and Western Conference, and wound up No. 1 overall by year's end the last two seasons, only to see their dreams of drinking from Lord Stanley's Cup dashed all too early.

In one respect, 2010-2011 is already working out quite differently. The anchors on Sharks Postgame Live have not bothered comparing the Sharks start this season to the best starts in NHL history, because there is no comparison to be made. After 14 games, the Sharks have managed just 16 points, good enough for a tie for third in the Pacific Division and eighth in the Western Conference.

The average person would think such a drop-off would be cause for concern, but quite to the contrary, it has been met with excitement and heightened anticipation in Silicon Valley.

The Sharks still have all six games remaining against the division-leading LA Kings, and plenty can happen in the 68 games left on the schedule. But as of right now, the Sharks are far from favorites to clinch another Pacific Division title. Failing to do so would guarantee the Sharks no better than the No. 4 seed in next spring's playoff race. Still, fans seem to look at this dilemma as an advantage, their argument being that the underdog role could be a major boost to a team perennially struggling to "get over the hump."

Be careful what you wish for, Sharks fans.

The Stanley Cup is one of if not the most difficult trophy to win in all of professional sports. To lay claim to it, one needs to survive a four-round marathon tournament of grueling and physically draining competition without suffering even a modest lapse in play that could allow for four losses in seven games. Teams must play at the top of their games for up to two months.

In recent years, the playoff bubble has been a crowded mess of hopeful teams, jockeying for position right down to the final week, if not the final game, of the season. In effect, being one of these lower seeds extends the grueling playoff grind by as much as a month, as teams are essentially in survival mode much earlier, fighting tooth and nail to merely make the playoffs even before the draining battle for the ultimate prize actually begins.

Home-ice advantage may well be overrated, but it is definitely to a team's advantage to be able to rest their players as mid-April draws near.

Of the last 10 Stanley Cup winners, all were top-four seeds, and eight of those were division champions. The Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche combined to win three Stanley Cups in the same years in which each also won the Presidents' Trophy.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Last year's Western Conference Finals showed the virtues of being a top playoff seed as No. 1 met No. 2.

Cinderellas like the 2009-2010 Montréal Canadiens or 2005-2006 Edmonton Oilers have made impressive runs from the lower-seeded ranks, but have ultimately fallen short of a title. The Sharks have already done their share of falling short, but doing so from a lower seed will be no more satisfying nor less disappointing.

The Sharks have proven that being a top seed guarantees you nothing, but larger history has proven it still is the most likely path to the prize the Sharks and their fans desperately seek.

The current complacency surrounding the Sharks is likely to do no large favors in the end. Major questions still loom at backup goaltender, on the blue line and, most glaringly, in basic execution. Team Teal is quickly approaching a major crossroads in their milestone 20th year. Staying on their current path may not be the no-brainer many fans assume it is.

Keep the Faith!

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