With the Pacific Division and the second seed locked up, the San Jose Sharks now await their first-round opponent.
With a 48-25-9 record over this 2010-11 season, the Sharks have put together one hell of a fine season, considering the season was slipping away at one point during a six-game losing streak.
For a team and franchise that’s endured more than its fair share of criticism, the Sharks have rallied to put themselves back into Stanley Cup contention.
Despite the Sharks being as hot as they have in the second half of the season, they are still flying low as far as media attention is concerned. Nobody’s really talking about the Sharks much, and maybe that’s a good thing for once.
Now with the playoffs looming ahead, San Jose prepares to put a cap on their 20th anniversary season by reversing their fortunes and bringing home the hardware.
Here are five keys to the Sharks marching Lord Stanley’s Cup down in West Santa Clara in early June.
Patrick Marleau rebounded to enjoy one of his finest seasons ever, answering the call in multiple clutch situations late this year. Captain Clutch scored nine game-winners so far and looks to build on last year's playoff performance.
He’s also one of the hottest players in the West, with 28 points in his last 21 games; he’s a man on a mission of redemption.
Joe Thornton continues his defensive renaissance, with his offensive numbers down quite a bit from his career average. However, his dedication to the team system and playing from his own zone outward has him among team leaders in takeaways and setting the example as captain.
He's still the NHL's top point producer not named Jaromir Jagr since 1997-1998 and he just might break out in the playoffs.
What else can you say about Dany Heatley that hasn't already been muttered by many Sharks fans? While anyone can plainly see that he just hasn’t been the same Heater as a year ago, he’s still more then capable of wowing us on any given night.
To count the guy out wouldn't be wise, as he still has an impressive point-per-playoff-game average and led the league in game-winners a year ago. In fact, he leads the NHL in game-winners since 2002-03 with 49 walk-off goals.
His goal against Phoenix was an absolute blast, and the Sharks need more confident hockey like that from their enigmatic winger.
Who will this team’s X-factor be this year in the postseason? Any number of surprise contributors could mean the difference for the Sharks this year: Setoguchi, Clowe, Eager or even Mayers.
Fact is, San Jose’s deeper than it’s ever been. I mean, let’s face it, is there a better third line in all of hockey right now than Mitchell-Pavelski-Wellwood?
Since the line’s initial assembly on March 14th against the Chicago Blackhawks, they have been dominant. Combining for 39 points over just 13 games, the line has consistently generated chances and turnovers.
San Jose has not fared well in the early part of any playoff round, going just 1-6 in their last seven Game 1 appearances. While at first glance this record may seem meaningless given the Sharks 3-4 record, they own in those series, it is paramount for the Sharks to get off to a fast start.
We can all recall the Sharks being swept out of the Western Conference Finals a year ago by the eventual champs. Another Game 1 defeat and a 46-foot Andrew Ladd floater in Game 2 later, and the Sharks were headed back to Chicago down 0-2 having been outscored 6-3.
San Jose has been the best road team since 2006-07 in terms of victories, with a 121-65-19 record over that span. Including their 23-14-4 record his year on the road, which puts even further emphasis on winning the early games at home.
Just as important to starting quickly, the Sharks must also protect the lead having blown several games this season due to the inability to hold leads late in the game. A far cry from the 2009-10 season where the Sharks were an astonishing 36-0-5 when leading after two periods.
Although it will be a battle, you can rest assured the coaching staff will be hammering the fast start theme home, and this year the Sharks just might break the trend.
The Sharks have got the depth needed for the playoffs this year, having seven skaters with 20 or more goals. This depth is going to have to make the difference when least expected and do it at even strength to succeed in the playoffs. But it's something the Sharks have struggled with this year, after posting a plus-32 a year ago in even strength differential.
Champions are born at even strength, the best teams produce at even strength and with 154 even strength tallies the Sharks will need their depth to shine to start a series the right way.
Antti Niemi was awarded the “Player of the Year” award by the Sharks Foundation, and you’d be hard pressed to find fault in his selection. He’s been one of the league’s most dominant goalies since Jan. 15th, going 25-4-4 and putting up a .922 save percentage over that time.
Nemo was again masterful recording his 35th victory of the season tonight, stopping 35 of 36 shots for the 3-1 rebound victory over the Phoenix Coyotes.
The Sharks have had much to be thankful for, as Niemi has been lights out after a stretch of sub .880 save percentage goaltending to kick off the season. Since Thanksgiving, he’s posted a .922 save percentage and a 2.19 goals-against average and stolen the victory numerous times for the San Jose Sharks.
Antti was a solid performer for the Blackhawks a year ago and had an awesome series against the Sharks in the Western Conference Final.
The most remarkable thing about last year’s run for Nemo was not his dominance, because make no mistake, he did have several bad outings. The one tangible accomplishment that made the difference for the Blackhawks is that no matter how tough it got, no matter how bad a game, Niemi always bounced back.
The Sharks are hoping that trait is the difference for them this year, in bringing the Stanley Cup home to Northern California for the very first time.
Special teams. In the playoffs it’s discussed, analyzed, broken down and debated to the point of exhaustion. It’s a dead horse beaten with another dead horse when it comes to special teams play in the NHL playoffs.
The Sharks are tied for the second-ranked power play, operating at a superb 23.5 percentage and has been pretty consistent all year. Like last year, the Sharks are middle of the pack when it comes to drawing penalties with a slight dip to 289 power-play opportunities this year.
Problem is, the Sharks have only scored nine more power-play goals than they have allowed, and the culprit behind it all has been in the penalty kill.
The Sharks penalty kill efficiency has been horrible pretty much all year, and this will cause problems for them in the playoffs, especially if they continue to take dumb penalties.
At a meager kill rate of 79.6, San Jose is the seventh worst penalty killing team in the NHL, a far cry from the fifth-ranked PK a year ago. To compound matters, the Sharks are among the least penalized teams with just 274 shorthanded opportunities.
In 2009-10, the Sharks finished top five in the NHL in power play (21 percent) and the penalty kill (85 percent).
With these kinds of numbers, the issues are undeniable for San Jose and the adjustments in the postseason becomes quite clear.
Sure sounds easy doesn’t it? The team has fought back from 11th place and stormed their way through the NHL and still don’t have much media buzz about them. So it should be easy for the Sharks to focus on the task at hand and take care of business, should it not?
The previous playoff disappointments, the early exits, bitter losses, deflating goals-against...you name it, the Sharks have seen it.
With the second seed secured, the Sharks now eagerly await the result of Sunday’s Detroit Red Wings-Chicago Blackhawks showdown. If Chicago wins in regulation or OT, the Sharks will welcome Phoenix with open arms; if Chicago loses in OT, the Sharks will face the Blackhawks.
But in all likelihood I believe the Hawks will fall in regulation which means the Sharks won’t be traveling far in the first round. The Red Wings were none too pleased with the results from their previous game against the Chicago Blackhawks and will be looking for blood.
The Los Angeles Kings are a big team who can put the clamps down on defense, and play a rugged game along the boards and in front. They are also one of the streakiest teams in the NHL, and when they are hot are more than capable of beating anyone on any given night. Sound like 2009 to anyone yet?
Want some more good news? If the President Trophy season of 2009 was a bad dream, the 2010-2011 season could be a screaming nightmare. In the current playoff format, only two teams have finished second in the regular season and gone on to win the Cup. Thirteen others have also fallen in the first round, so history isn't exactly on the Sharks' side.
And guess what? The Sharks shouldn't want it any other way, because a true champion is one forged in the fiercest fires, and against all odds.
Bring on the Blackhawks/Kings/Coyotes, the odds and history, because I believe this San Jose Shark team is ready.