The San Jose Sharks may finally have that "special something" that they have been lacking in play-off seasons past—that special "it" factor that can finally push them over the hump and deliver a Stanley Cup Title to the loyal fans in Silicon Valley.
Exactly what is "it"?
In actuality, "it" cannot be reduced to a singular entity. Rather "its" potency derives from the same nature as "its" elusiveness—namely that "it" is in reality a delicate combination of favorable factors. In this—their twentieth year of hockey—it appears the Sharks may finally have "it all".
The Sharks very likely will once again enjoy prime playoff positioning—with Saturday's win going lengths to secure another Pacific Division crown and Top-three seed, a posture from which the overwhelming majority of past Cup Champions have emerged.
The Sharks seem to be finding new ways to win just about every night. They also have found a balance in this year's race between becoming too comfortable in their play-off destinies and having to fight too hard just to make the field—that is something they have basically never had.
The Sharks also have developed a dogged tenacity and gritty never-say-die mentality, reflected perhaps most strikingly in the play of their stalwart goaltender, Antti Niemi—who tasted the ultimate prize just last year.
Perhaps more important than any of that however, is the way the Sharks have been getting truly balanced scoring—especially of late. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and even Dany Heatley have been making their usual contributions, but the Sharks have enjoyed unexpected contributions up and down the lineup. Players like Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski are having career years, and long-maligned and oft-injured center Torrey Mitchell has caught fire of late.
Mitchell could very well prove a true x-factor if they are to go all the way. The reasons for this are numerous. Here are the top five:
One of Torrey Mitchell's biggest drawbacks has always been his fragility. He missed the entire 2008-2009 season with a series of leg injuries, only to return in the opening round of the play-offs against the division-rival Anaheim Ducks.
Mitchell was visibly hesitant trying to ease his way back into the NHL game, and could not help the Sharks solve Jonas Hiller and avoid the embarrassing early exit. Now, however—after struggling to find his form in limited duty last season—Mitchell finally seems to have regained the confidence and youthful exuberance that made him such a promising prospect.
Mitchell enters the 2011 play-offs riding a nearly full season of healthy hockey for the first time since his rookie year. That could bode well for him and the Sharks.
Unless you happen to be a huge fan of the San Jose Sharks or an unbelievably passionate devotee of the game of hockey, chances are you have never heard the name Torrey Mitchell. That could play powerfully to his advantage.
The Sharks are noted for their super stars like Thornton, Marleau, and Heatley. The bulk of any opponent's gameplan will focus on neutralizing the threat posed by these players, and rightfully so. Other role players like Dan Boyle, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, and even Logan Couture could also have a target placed on them, but someone like Mitchell is unlikely to garner much more than a footnote in the gameplan of most coaches facing the Sharks.
Mitchell may be able to hide behind this haze of extenuating circumstances: his relatively low personal profile, the huge star power of his teammates, and the oft-under-analyzed nature of the Western Conference to create opportunities come playoff time.
When properly wielded, speed can be one of the most devastating weapons in sports, especially hockey. Torrey Mitchell has plenty of speed, and might finally be learning to use it to its fullest potential.
Recent goals by Mitchell—most notably his stunning individual game-tying effort against the Vancouver Canucks—suggest that Mitchell may finally be embracing his skills to the fullest. He is often slowed by having to wait and let his linemates keep pace, but is finding more and more ways to slip past defenders to create breakaways or win the race to a loose rebound.
Head Coach Todd McLellan might consider occasionally playing Mitchell alongside Patrick Marleau, perhaps the fastest player on the team other than Mitchell, and seeing if the combined speed of the duo could lead to more frequent 2-on-1 (or even 2-on-0) rushes.
Not only do teams primarily plan to shutdown the opposition's biggest stars first, but such talent is usually concentrated on the first and second lines, meaning they garner the lion share of focus from the opposition. The Sharks are no exception.
Recently, the Sharks' top two lines have looked like this:
With the exception of Pavelski, nearly all the big names are on and off the ice by the second line change. Especially in the play-offs, coaches tend to play more conservatively—pairing their top lines against the opposition's.
This often has the effect of neutralizing or "canceling-out" the effect of the top two lines—leaving the outcome to be most heavily influenced by the third and fourth lines. Rest assured that if the Sharks hope to win the Cup, they will need Thornton, Marleau, and Heatley to earn their game checks, but players like Eager Wellwood, and Mitchell could be just as critical.
Having a comparatively "bigger" name on the third line with Mitchell—in the form of Joe Pavelski—could help further divert opposing attention and create more opportunities for No. 17 in critical situations. He could easily find the game on his stick more than once in April, May, and June.
Perhaps most critical of all, Torrey Mitchell seems to be catching fire at just the right time. In his last 11 games, he has tallied nine points, five goals, and has been a consistent presence around the net. This spike in productivity was focused most strongly in a seven-game stretch, wherein he recorded all nine points and a two-goal game—the best stretch of his career.
The Sharks could certainly use that productivity come play-off time. Mitchell and Pavelski have been playing off one another and seem to be pushing each other toward bigger and better outputs. Linemate Kyle Wellwood has not enjoyed quite the same statistical jump, but has nonetheless been making contributions.
If the third line continues to light the lamp so proficiently, the Sharks could enjoy a lengthy play-off campaign. Mitchell's ability to stay healthy and hot may well be a key contributing factor.
Keep the Faith!