The San Jose Sharks are back in the playoffs—having clinched their spot the first night they were able in stunning fashion over the desperate division-rival Dallas Stars. The game was a sterling example of something that has become routine of late for the Sharks: rising to a challenge and making the most of an opportunity.
Especially in recent weeks, the Sharks have seemed to answer the bell and quell their doubters every time they have had the chance. Whether it be mounting a late comeback, bouncing back from a tough loss, or wrapping up a playoff spot at their first opportunity, this year's Sharks have been passing the tests that previous squads simply did not.
It all goes far toward suggesting that this may finally be a truly different team from those that suffered such disappointing early exits in years past. This team may finally have what it takes to go the distance.
Thursday's post season berth-clinching win over the Stars was perhaps the prime example. After rarely missing a point since mid-January, the Sharks finally had the chance to guarantee a playoff spot.
Curiously, this was the first time in recent memory where head coach Todd McLellan did not stress the importance of making the playoffs in his pre-game comments. With the Sharks coming off a four-day lay-off, the Stars desperate for points, and goaltender Antti Niemi starting a mind-boggling 32nd straight game, many predicted the Sharks would have to wait until another night to punch their ticket to the post season.
Not only did the Sharks win in regulation—earning the key two points in the process to not only wrap up the playoff berth, but leap-frog the Detroit Red Wings for sole possession of second place in the Western Conference—they absolutely annihilated the Stars. If a Sharks' fan could draw up a perfect outcome, they might not even dare to dream as large as Thursday night's reality proved to be.
The Sharks scored six goals, posted a shut-out despite allowing 29 shots, were a perfect 3-0 on penalty kills (all of which came in the second period), and peppered two different Dallas goaltenders (Kari Lehtonen and Andrew Raycroft) with a combined season-high 52 shots on goal. The game was somehow even greater than the sum of some incredible individual efforts.
Patrick Marleau recorded a franchise-record 12 shots and scored twice, raising his season total to 35 goals. Logan Couture reclaimed a share of the rookie goal-scoring lead at 31 with a tidy glove hand play early in the second period. Douglas Murray and Niclas Wallin laid the lumber on Stars skaters from the opening face-off to the final horn, and Ben Eager scored a goal that may well have been better than Torrey Mitchell's dazzling effort against the Vancouver Canucks.
To top it all off, Niemi's 29-save performance for his sixth shutout of the year were nearly an after-thought.
More important than any of that was the resolve the Sharks showed. There were plenty of excuses to come out flat and surrender these two points to a Dallas squad that much more desperately needed them, but the Sharks proved early and often that they had no intentions of playing the charity role. Even with four and five goal leads in the third period, the Sharks continued to push for more opportunities.
Where in the past the Sharks have been guilty of passively sitting on seemingly comfortable leads, only to see them evaporate into tense contests once the final minutes arrive, the Sharks went for the jugular once they got the Stars on the ropes. Eager scored very late in the third, to make the game a laughable 6-0, but was just a post shot away from his second goal moments later and could actually have scored a hat trick in the last six minutes of play if not for some tough luck.
That killer instinct and indomitable swagger is something the Sharks have desperately lacked in years past. Their ability to respond so intensely against a tough and determined opponent after a lengthy pause and their conviction in securing their post season destinies the first time they had the chance are fantastic omens for the playoffs.
This may finally be "the" sign that the Sharks are ready, willing, and doggedly hell bent on evolving from the mild-mannered persona of playoffs past. They are finally committed to going from nurse sharks to great whites.
I have always been intensely conservative and superstitious in making post season predictions, but that has never worked before. Forget about modesty and throw superstition to the breeze: The San Jose Sharks will be 2011 Stanley Cup Champions!
Get those playoff beards growing, and as always. . .
Keep the Faith!