Forward Patrick Marleau may no longer be the captain of the San Jose Sharks (a role he ably served from 2004 to 2008), but lately he has been steering the Sharks' ship through some delicate navigation, helping them climb back into the lead in the Pacific Division.
Marleau enjoyed an incredible season in 2009-2010, after being replaced as captain by soon-to-be-Hall of Fame defenseman Rob Blake. He scored a career-high 44 goals with 83 points—keying a scoring attack that helped land the Sharks their second-ever Western Conference Finals appearance.
He was uncharacteristically effective in the postseason as well, scoring eight goals with 13 points in 14 games and was practically the entire offense for the Sharks in the conference finals.
He posted winning goals in two of the four wins over the vaunted Detroit Red Wings in a thrilling and inspiring five-game semi-final series win.
This clutch play has now re-emerged to help the Sharks to a 14-2-1 mark over their last 17 games, improving from No. 11 to No. 3 in the west and the top of the Pacific Division.
Marleau has scored the game-winner in overtime in the last two Sharks overtime contests—a pair of difficult road games in Nashville and Pittsburgh, respectively. His goal in Pittsburgh was particularly impressive, as it came with only four seconds remaining in overtime after he had been denied on a breakaway opportunity just a minute earlier.
The team's resurgence has seemed to follow Marleau's personal upturn, but while the Sharks have put themselves in prime position to compete for a top playoff spot, questions still abound.
Marleau's play has been nothing short of spectacular, but given severely disappointing production from other offensive stars like Dany Heatley, it has only kept the Sharks in position to win tight games. How much longer can Marleau continue to carry the team while sharing the vast majority of the offensive load almost solely with Logan Couture?
The Sharks have also been without Antero Niittymaki for well over a month. In that time, Antti Niemi has made every start in net (20 in a row) and only missed time after being relieved of duties trailing 3-0 against the Phoenix Coyotes—a game where rookie goaltender Alex Stalock came in to ride a dramatic Sharks' comeback for his first NHL win.
Niemi has played well, or at least well enough to win, but he started just 61 games last year including the playoffs.
Repeated tight wins are an indication that. . .
Yes, he is young, in just his second professional season, but how much longer can the Sharks rely exclusively on the defending Stanley Cup Champion? Can they afford to keep using the backup goaltender role to give youngsters a sheltered taste of the "big league experience" and still hope to have a ready goaltender come April?
Finally, with still a full six weeks to play before the postseason begins, are the Sharks peaking too early? The team that once struggled to string four wins together has now made such a feat seem routine. If not for a fluky shoot-out loss to the Los Angeles Kings right before the All Star Break, the Sharks could have boasted a 10-game win streak.
Still, one must wonder how long a team that was so average early in the season can sustain the torrent pace at which they have recently been collecting points in the standings. Perhaps more importantly, when the inevitable slow down does hit, how bad will it be, how long will it last and how critical will the points left on the board prove?
To a near metaphysical certainty, the Sharks cannot and will not continue to win at their current clip from now until late June. We can only hope they can manage to adjust when this incredible wave finally crests and breaks.
The Sharks have been winning games very narrowly of late, often having to survive late surges from their opponents or manufacture comebacks of their own. You can look at that one of two diametrically opposed ways.
Either the Sharks are digging as deep as they can to win, despite incredible adversity in a conference race that is as competitive as ever or they are failing to capitalize on the opportunities that could afford them easier and less-dramatic victories.
In their last two games, the Sharks allowed late goals to the opposition putting what had seemed like certain victories in serious jeopardy.
The Red Wings tightened a 4-2 Sharks lead to 4-3 late in regulation and generated several opportunities to tie. The following night, the Penguins scored with less than a minute remaining to extend the game to overtime after Couture missed a prime opportunity for an empty-net goal to ice the game.
In the end, the points are all that matter and the Sharks have regularly secured those. Some might argue that the added drama and adversity will forge the Sharks into a stronger, more resolute team and to an extent that might be true. Nonetheless, missed opportunities should not be taken lightly.
Come playoff time, the chances to make amends may not materialize with as much regularity.
Rest assured that the Sharks still have plenty to work on between now and April.
Keep the faith!