By now, we all know the San Jose Sharks' playoff history—the upsets, the early exits, the disappearances of key players and the reputation as chokers.
But, once again we approach the playoffs asking if this will finally be the year that the Sharks live up to their playoff potential.
There are a few key difference between this edition of the Sharks and the past versions that have fallen apart, namely Antti Niemi, Logan Couture and regular season struggles.
In Niemi the Sharks finally have a proven winner between the pipes. After winning the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks last season, the Hawks chose not to resign the Finnish goalie and Niemi came to San Jose.
After a rocky start, Niemi has found his groove and has been a huge contributor to the Sharks' recent 17-3-1 run.
In Logan Couture the Sharks have a clutch rookie. Couture has already set a new rookie record for game-winning goals and is a Calder Trophy candidate.
Finally, the Sharks have had to overcome adversity during the regular season. The Sharks have been in the top two in the league each of the last three years and haven't faced many or any struggles until the postseason.
By facing challenges during the regular season, the Sharks have come together as a stronger team and are playing some of the best hockey we've ever seen from them.
All of these factors could help the Sharks finally get over the hump, but of course they could flame out yet again.
Here's a look at the scariest matchups the Sharks could face in the playoffs.
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If the Pittsburgh Penguins make it far enough to potentially meet the Sharks, it's going to mean three things: Sidney Crosby is back and dominating, Marc-Andre Fleury is standing on his head and the Penguins' penalty kill is still the best in the league.
That's a very scary proposition for any team, especially the Sharks, who don't have a premier shutdown defense pair.
If the Penguins make it through, it will mean that Crosby has likely already beaten Chris Pronger and Zdeno Chara, so Douglas Murray won't seem quite as scary as he normally does.
Also, the Penguins' fantastic penalty kill could neutralize the Sharks powerful power play.
The Nashville Predators are far from an offensive powerhouse but facing Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and company is an unpleasant first round proposition.
Rinne is second in the league in both goals against average and save percentage, and Weber and Suter form one of the best defensive pairs in the league.
The Predators also boast a top five penalty kill, which helps make up for their relative offensive futility.
The Sharks would hold a large offensive edge, but defense and goaltending would be at best a wash.
The Anaheim Ducks have a forward group that is amongst the hardest to defend because of their size, skill and physicality.
With Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Teemu Selanne and Lubomir Visnovsky, the Ducks boast five players in the league's top 40 scorers.
If and when Jonas Hiller returns from injury, the Ducks also have a goalie who could merit both Vezina and Hart Trophy consideration.
The Ducks' defensive core would struggle with the deep forward group of the Sharks, but the recent acquisition of Francois Beauchemin will make a huge difference come playoff time.
Finally, just two short years ago, the Ducks were the number eight seed and upset the Presidents' Trophy-winning Sharks, so they know they can beat San Jose.
The Calgary Flames have been one of the hottest teams in the league for the last two months and are quite possibly the least fun team to play against.
The Flames play a fast and physically punishing style that's anchored by superstar goalie (and former Shark) Miikka Kiprusoff.
With Kiprusoff and captain Jarome Iginla, the Flames are no pushover, and they gave the Sharks all they could handle in a seven game first round series in 2008.
San Jose would definitely have the advantage in both depth and skill among the forwards, but that wouldn't necessarily stop Calgary from outworking the Sharks all over the ice.
The Philadelphia Flyers can throw out something that not many teams in the league can handle—three equally good forward lines that can dominate a game.
With the emergence of Claude Giroux, the Flyers boast a bevy of stars in Giroux, Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere and Mike Richards, along with budding stars James van Riemsdyk and Ville Leino.
The Sharks third defense pair would almost certainly struggle with Philadelphia's never-ending stream of offensive talent.
The Sharks have three very good forward lines as well, but Philadelphia has three solid defensive pairs that can all play against top lines, including shutdown vet Chris Pronger.
Where San Jose could gain the advantage in the series is between the pipes. The Flyers have very much unproven goaltending, which is a battle the Sharks own with Niemi.
The Boston Bruins are scary good in almost every aspect of the game. Their forward group is talented, physical and deep. Their defense is bolstered by Zdeno Chara and Tomas Kaberle and they have the best goalie in the league in Tim Thomas.
Boston's top line is very hard to match against because power forwards Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton use physicality and speed to create tons of space for slick playmaking center David Krejci.
Zdeno Chara may well be the best shutdown defenseman in the league, and fighting through playoff matchups has never been Joe Thornton's forte.
What the Sharks will have going for them if they get to face Boston is momentum. The Sharks will have already reached the Cup Finals, which should mean that the enormous weight of expectations will have lifted and they can just play good hockey.
The Sharks also take the edge in both offense and power play, and this would very likely be a seven-game series if it happens.
The LA Kings might not be the most talented team in the league, but they're miserable to play against.
With Anze Kopitar, Ryan Smyth, Dustin Brown, Dustin Penner, Wayne Simmonds and Michal Handzus the Kings' forwards are big, fast and physical.
Penner and Smyth are two of the best net-front presences in the league, and Douglas Murray would have a hard time covering both of them.
The Kings also have depth on defense with Jack Johnson, Drew Doughty, Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi making up a solid top four.
Finally, the Kings have Jonathan Quick, who's been one of the best goalies in the league this season.
Where the Sharks should have the advantage is the third line vs. the Kings' third defense pairing, usually rookie Alec Martinez and Matt Greene.
The skill the Sharks can have on their third line could make it too hard for the Kings to match against all three top lines.
Also, the Sharks have far more playoff experience than the Kings, most of whom have only played one career playoff series.
The Vancouver Canucks are a two-way juggernaut—they're third in goals scored and second in goals allowed in the league.
The Canucks have elite talent in their forward group with Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows, and have a deep supporting cast of Mason Raymond, Mikael Samuelsson, former Shark Manny Malhotra and others.
The Canucks also have Roberto Luongo in net, who has been one of the best regular season goalies of the last decade.
The Sharks advantage against the Canucks is that they now have a proven winner in net. Also, the Canucks are developing a reputation much like the Sharks have around the league for falling apart in the playoffs.
While the Sharks did beat the Detroit Red Wings 4-1 in the second round of last year's playoffs, the Wings are a scary proposition for any team.
With Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, the Wings have three of the premier two-way forwards in the game. All three are capable of playing a checking role while still contributing offense.
Adding to that is the tendency of Zetterberg and Franzen to substantially step up their play in the playoffs, and it's a tough threesome to handle.
The Wings' forward depth behind the stars is better than it was last season as well with the emergence of Darren Helm and Todd Bertuzzi and the return of Jiri Hudler.
The Wings defense is among the best in the league, anchored by six-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom and supported by Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart.
In net, Wings goalie Jimmy Howard hasn't been spectacular, but is tied for the league lead in wins and seems to be able to make a key save when necessary.
San Jose's advantage in this series comes in net. Niemi will have to be great for the Sharks to get by the Red Wings, who had a longer summer to rest before this season than they did either of the two previous years.
The Chicago Blackhawks team that swept the Sharks in last year's Western Conference Finals has dismantled several key pieces but the core of the team remains the same.
Led by captain Jonathan Toews, the Hawks have reeled off eight straight wins and might be playing the best of any team in the NHL right now.
Toews is supported by Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and rookie goaltender Corey Crawford.
The rookie goaltender shouldn't be a problem for the Hawks as Niemi won the Cup with them as a rookie last year, and Crawford is having a better season than Niemi did.
The Hawks also have the advantage of having played with Niemi last year—they know his strengths and weaknesses and know how to beat him better than anyone else in the league.
Where San Jose has to take advantage to win this series is using their depth on forward to overwhelm the lower defensive pairs for Chicago.
Chicago has split up Keith and Seabrook lately, so the top two pairs are pretty good but the third defensive pairing is exploitable by San Jose's forwards.
The Sharks will also have to use their size up front and crash the net. If they can rattle Crawford and get him off his game a little bit, this would instantly become a much easier series for the Sharks.
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