There is a different feeling within the San Jose Sharks clubhouse this season as they head toward the most difficult postseason in professional sports.
For years, San Jose has been dubbed as Stanley Cup favorites, bolstering impressive lineups that have included All-Stars Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley.
As a result, those previous clubs have played with immense pressure stemming from all around the Western Conference, which as Sharks fans can describe, has amounted to mere disappointment.
San Jose has enjoyed the benefits of winning the Pacific Division for the past four seasons. In three of those seasons, most experts around the NHL looked at the Sharks to be the Western Conference representatives and favored to win over Eastern Conference teams, using their size and speed to their advantage.
Yet, as each year passed, the Sharks and their fans have found themselves watching as other teams were parading with Lord Stanley's Cup.
Two differences are apparent this season. Unlike last year and 2008-09, the Sharks did not get out to a strong start in 2010-11. Even midway through the regular season, the Sharks were on the cusp of the playoff picture, often finding themselves teetering between the seventh and ninth seed in the conference.
During the second half of the season, the Sharks needed to rebound in order to improve their playoff hopes. They were able to with an impressive March, going 9-2-3 during the month on their way to another Pacific Division title.
How will the Sharks fare in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs
This desperation will hopefully translate into a hot streak that may last deep into the playoff push, something that the Sharks have often lacked during their previous trips.
The other notable difference is the fact that most people around the NHL are viewing the Vancouver Canucks as favorites in the West. With their NHL-leading 117 points, the Canucks certainly have impressed all critics and benefit from the Sedin twins (Henrik and Daniel) once again.
This attention to their conference rivals has allowed the Sharks to escape much of the attention and scrutiny that has been given to them at this point in previous years.
"It's kind of nice," forward Ryane Clowe said. "We feel like we made progress last year. We took a step forward, now it's a chance to make another stride this year. We feel really good about our team."
As we have seen, many teams fly "under the radar" as they enter the playoffs and wind up making it all the way to the finals.
If the Sharks are able to capitalize on this possibility, they should stand a good chance of finally acquiring what has been eluding them for so many years: a Stanley Cup championship parade in downtown San Jose.