Ever since assuming the coaching reins from Ron Wilson, San Jose Sharks' head coach Todd McLellan has preached reliance and commitment to "the process" (long "o" for our Canadian friends) when discussing his vision for the team.
If nothing else, McLellan's much-discussed process has yielded tangible progress for the Sharks in advancing them toward the ultimate goal.
The Sharks suffered a bitter and humbling first-round playoff defeat at the hands of the rival Anaheim Ducks in McLellan's first year as coach, only to rebound last year and fight all the way to the Western Conference Finals—passing the vaunted Detroit Red Wings along the way—before ultimately succumbing to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Now in McLellan's third year, Team Teal has not jumped out to their customary prohibitive division and conference lead, but they are making smaller progress as the season progresses.
The Sharks passed their first major test on a young 2010-2011 season weeks ago when they handily dispatched of the then high-flying Los Angeles Kings 6-3 in a game at HP Pavilion. The excitement over the accomplishment was quickly tempered, however, when the Sharks followed that effort with a disappointing road trip.
In back-to-back road games against the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars, the Sharks saw a pair of two-goal third period leads evaporate only to lose each game in overtime.
Just a week and a half later, it seemed recent history was repeating itself. The Sharks closed a home stand the night before Thanksgiving with a statement win over the Blackhawks and even found production from their much-maligned goaltender Antti Niemi. But a two-game road trip loomed with stops in Vancouver and Edmonton.
This trip started even less favorably than the last, with the Sharks suffering a major setback against the Vancouver Canucks and Niemi looking as susceptible as ever in a 6-1 drubbing.
With a bevy of injuries reducing the roster to just four dressed defensemen by the second period in the Edmonton game, it looked as though the Sharks would head back to San Jose without earning a point on the trip. However, where potential excuses were plentiful, the Sharks found a way to rise above it and claw their way to a win.
Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and rookie Justin Braun—in just his second NHL game—did yeomen's work through much of the last two periods, and made a 4-1 third period lead stand up, even in the face of a furious comeback attempt from the Oilers which saw them net two goals in under 45 seconds.
The performance is another strong building block from which the team can draw strength in times of crisis as the season progresses. Just as they did against Chicago when the Blackhawks found a way to draw within a goal in the third period, the Sharks found a way to shut the opposition down—this time against much lowlier competition, but also suffering from a tremendous disadvantage on the bench.
Justin Braun's baptism by fire was indeed impressive, as the rookie posted a plus-two with two assists to boot. Rookie forwards Ben Ferriero and Tommy Wingels also made contributions in the game, with Ferriero netting the first Sharks' goal just 70 seconds in. The Sharks may need substantial contributions from their young reinforcements in Worcester if their injury problems persist.
Perhaps the biggest key of all was what those two points earned against the Oilers did for the Sharks in the standings. They helped the Sharks rise to 26 points, just one behind the co-division leading Phoenix Coyotes and Dallas Stars in a jumbled Pacific Division where first and worst are separated by just two points. For those keeping score at home, the Sharks are also six points behind the Western Conference-leading Red Wings—against whom they play Tuesday night.
The division and the conference are as wide open as ever, and if the Sharks can draw on the confidence, that should come with some of their more emphatic recent victories, they could find themselves back in prime playoff position in short order. They simply need to keep progressing as the season, and "the process," rolls on.
Keep the Faith!
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