The 2011 Stanley Cup Champion San Jose Sharks suffered a predictable letdown Wednesday night in Southern California against the arch-rival Anaheim Ducks. To be sure, plenty of prognosticators will take this opportunity to immediately cue the chorus of "Here we go again"s—while slamming forcibly down on the proverbial panic button with both hands.
Surely this fundamental breakdown is proof positive of every Sharks fan's worst fears. On the surface, they may seem like a team reborn and destined for a great post season, but ultimately, they are just as susceptible as ever to embarrassing and demoralizing losses (we all remember 2008).
True, the Sharks had less to play for than any night in recent weeks, having already clinched both a playoff spot and the Pacific Division crown, but a win would still have been significant. It would have given them the season series win over their arch-rivals and a potential first-round playoff opponent. It would have tied Todd McLellan with Mike Keenan as the winningest coach in the first three seasons of an NHL career.
Coupled with a Detroit Red Wings loss, a win also would have nearly secured the No. 2 seed for San Jose in the playoffs. Not only did the Sharks fail to take advantage of these opportunities, they failed miserably.
The Sharks allowed six goals, lost by four, went a miserable 2-6 on the penalty kill and surrendered a hat trick and the 50th goal of the season to NHL scoring leader Corey Perry. Just the same old Sharks, right?
As my daddy always said (bet you can't guess what his name is), "If you're gonna lose, you might as well lose big."
Nearly always, that proves to be true. The Sharks suffered a horrible 7-2 loss with a chance to sweep the Red Wings in the second round of the playoffs last year, only to rebound in Game 5 with one of their finest playoff performances ever.
If you are willing to put the inherent negativity and pessimism that seems to proliferate the Sharks fanbase aside, you will find there are various reasons to be encouraged by the overall happenings of Wednesday night. I cannot claim that the loss was preferable to a win (who wants to lose to the Ducks?), but it was far from a total write-off.
Here is why:
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are without a doubt the most grueling and physically demanding postseason tournament in all of professional sports. Brace yourself for a news flash, but the Sharks will not win 16 consecutive games in route the 2011 title.
Wednesday's outcome reminds the Sharks that they are not bullet-proof and still need to put forth superior effort on a nightly basis in order to continue winning. One of the main risks in enjoying such a tremendous run, as the Sharks have authored since January, is getting too comfortable and developing poor habits.
The emphatic loss should help guard against that—while giving the Sharks a late-season chance to polish their skills at rebounding from a tough loss.
In some ways the Sharks picked a good night to lose, as the Red Wings' loss to the Carolina Hurricanes prevented the Sharks from losing ground in the race for the No. 2 playoff seed. However, they failed to gain any ground either.
Had the Sharks won on Wednesday, they would have been left with little for which to play. McLellan would have secured a tie with Mike Keenan, and the Sharks would have known that a single win by them or loss by Detroit would have wrapped up the No. 2 spot.
Two other things also failed to happen Wednesday: Joe Thornton failed to score his 1,000th career point, and Joe Pavelski failed to reach the 20-goal mark.
The Sharks will now be much more motivated to win both of their last two games, securing McLellan the coaching wins record and locking up the No. 2 seed and home ice advantage in a potential second-round bout with Detroit. Thornton and Pavelski will also be buzzing around the goal mouth trying to reach their individual milestones.
Sharks No. 1 goaltender Antti Niemi had put together an incredible streak of 32 consecutive starts prior to Wednesday. His staying power was matched perhaps only by his performance, which was strong enough to garner him Player of the Month honors in February and thrust him into the conversation for both the Vezina and Hart Memorial Trophies (best goaltender and league MVP, respectively).
Wednesday was clearly slated as a day of rest for Niemi, regardless of the outcome. McLellan's motives became clear after the Sharks fell behind 4-1 in the midst of a 3-on-5 disadvantage: rest Niemi the whole night and hope for the best.
The game gave Niemi a chance to watch a game from the bench and reflect upon the amazing body of work he has amassed to date. He should now stand a better chance of returning refreshed from this brief respite and ready to author another long playoff run.
Perhaps even more important than getting Niemi some rest was getting his back-up—veteran goaltender Antero Niittymaki—some work to knock the rust off. The final score was not a completely fair reflection of Niitty's level of effort in the game, but needless to say, he showed the signs of how long he has been out.
Niitty returned from a lingering injury several weeks back and was reported to be fully healthy. However, for a variety of reasons (some obvious, some not so much), the only action he saw was some mop-up duty spelling Niemi in a rough loss in Chicago.
For as relatively poorly as Niitty played on Wednesday, the Sharks should be thankful that he got the opportunity to get back into the flow of a game prior to the start of the playoffs. The nature of the loss may also have been a blessing.
Had Niitty played admirably and either kept the Sharks close or managed a win, it is reasonable to assume Niemi might have started the remaining two games. However, given the events of Wednesday, it now seems likely the Sharks will give Niitty the chance to atone for the ugly loss by starting one of the remaining outings.
This will not only give Niemi a little more precious rest and recuperation, but will also hasten Niitty on the return path toward solid play. If the Sharks never need Niitty to spell Niemi in the playoffs, all the better for them, but going into the postseason with a completely cold Niitty would have been inviting disaster with open arms.
It is always best to let sleeping dogs lie and never wise to agitate a dangerous animal. If there was a drawback to the Sharks' astounding performance over the last three months, it may have been the growing risk of complacency.
It is difficult to fathom, but the Sharks might actually benefit more in the long term from losing to the Ducks the way they did than had they played a much tighter game or even managed to win. This will be especially true if the Sharks face the Ducks in the first round (as it looks like they may).
Had the Sharks beaten the Ducks Wednesday, they would have gone to 4-1-1 against them on the season, leaving little doubt as to who the superior club was come a potential playoff matchup. It is nearly impossible to think the Sharks could underestimate the Ducks after 2008's debacle (even had they won Wednesday), but this emphatic loss ensures the Sharks will be that much more motivated to return the favor to the Ducks in a potential playoff series.
Even if the Sharks draw another opponent, the loss is sure to have shaken Team Teal up a bit and helped re-dedicate team focus toward the hard work and superior habits so critical to any Stanley Cup campaign.
It may have been difficult to watch for championship-thirsty "Fin-atics," but just like the shootout loss to the Vancouver Canucks a couple weeks ago, this outcome may have been just what the Sharks really needed. They will learn from it and be a better team for it in the coming weeks.
Keep the Faith!