The San Jose Sharks have acquired the reputation of a team that over performs in the regular season, but flounders in the playoffs.
The team, in it's 20 year history, has yet to win a Stanley Cup. That in itself isn't damning. Over the last 12 seasons they have made the playoffs every year but one. They've had some playoff success, winning almost as many series as they've lost (10-11).
Unfortunately, since 1998 they have made it to the Western Conference Finals only twice and have never made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. This despite a team that won the President's Trophy as the best regular season team in the league in 2008/09 and six Pacific Division championships. They have won their own division the last four years in a row.
Tonight, in Game 7 versus the Detroit Red Wings, comes their opportunity to even their recent playoff series' record and to make it to the Western Finals for the second year in a row.
Much has been expected of these San Jose Sharks. They made it to the Western Conference Final in 2004, but then lost to the underdog Calgary Flames. The cry went up that San Jose was missing what it took to win in the playoffs.
After the lockout the Sharks made a blockbuster deal trading speedy winger Marco Sturm, role player Wayne Primeau and physical defenseman Brad Stuart for the best playmaker in the game, big Joe Thornton. The consensus at the time was that San Jose had ensured future playoff success for years to come. The Sharks were a popular pick as Stanley Cup champion that year.
Thornton had a great year for San Jose. He finished the season with 125 points and 96 assists, still career bests for him. He lead the league in scoring, winning the Art Ross trophy, and was also awarded the Hart Memorial trophy as the NHL's most valuable player.
However the Sharks faltered in the second round of the playoffs, losing to another Western Canadian underdog team in the Edmonton Oilers. Thornton had a reasonable nine points in 11 playoff games, but he seemed too slow, uninspired and not physical enough once the playoffs came around. The same concerns fans and pundits had with the Sharks in 2004 resurfaced after the 2006 defeat.
Sharks GM Doug Wilson has attempted to find the missing element since then. Gone from the 2006 playoff team are Jonathon Cheechoo, Christian Ehrhoff, Tom Preissing, Steve Bernier, Milan Michalek, Nils Ekman, Patrick Riissmiller, Matt Carle, Marcel Goc, Kyle MacLaren, Scott Thornton, Ville Nieminen, Josh Gorges, Scott Hannan, Evgeny Nabokov,\ and Vesa Toskala.
Replacing them now are Logan Couture, Dan Boyle, Dany Heatley, Joe Pavelski, Kyle Wellwood, Ian White, Devin Setoguchi, Torrey Mitchell, Jason Demers, Niclas Wallin, Marc Edouard Vlasic, Scott Nichol, Ben Eager, Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki. It is amazing to me that a team with this much turnover in five short seasons can even run plays together let alone make the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup. Doug Wilson doesn't stand pat.
This San Jose Shark team has a nice blend of players. They have a small group of veterans who are probably on the downward limb of their career: Dan Boyle 34, Niclas Wallin 36, Scott Nicholl 36. They have a core of veterans who are as good as they're ever going to be: Joe Thornton 31, Patrick Marleau 31, Douglas Murray 31, Dany Heatley 30, Antero Niitymaki 30. There's a group in their prime: Ryan Clowe 28, Ben Eager 27, Antti Niemi 27, Kyle Wellwood 27. Finally there is a large group of youngsters some of whom still have the ability to improve significantly: Joe Pavelski 26, Ian White 26, Torrey Mitchell 26, Marc-Edouard Vlasic 24, Devin Setoguchi 24, Jason Demers 22, Logan Couture 22.
This team faces a Detroit Red Wings squad they handled in five games in last year's Conference Semifinals. They had a 3-0 series lead this year and looked well on their way to disposing of a veteran Red Wing squad that was suddenly seeming old and crippled by injuries.
San Jose has surrendered third period leads in the last two games on their way to defeat. In Game 4 they came back on Detroit from a 3-0 first period deficit to tie the game, only to lose on a Darren Helm goal at 18:33 of the third.
The most disturbing Shark loss was on Sunday, when Logan Couture scored at the 54 second mark of the third period to give them a 3-1 lead in an elimination game. Instead of closing the game out, San Jose gave up three goals in regulation to lose 4-3.
The Red Wings stand on the verge of being the fourth team in Stanley Cup history to win a playoff series after going down three games to none. A victory here is simply a bonus for a team that was counted out. The Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups in the last 14 years. They won their last cup in 2008 and made it to the finals in 2009. Detroit is a team that, while older than the Sharks, is infused with players who have won before and who you believe will win again.
The Sharks are a team desperate to win a cup. Some would say one of the most desperate teams in the playoffs this year
All the pressure in this Game 7 at home, in front of a crowd all too inured to playoff failure, is on the Sharks. This group has to find a way to beat Detroit and make it to the Conference Final.
Truthfully, if San Jose doesn't make it to the Stanley Cup this year I'd expect one member of the core of Boyle, Thornton or Marleau to be traded.
San Jose has a chance tonight to frustrate expectations and repair their reputation as a team that is not good enough in the playoffs. With leading scorer Ryan Clowe still injured and a game time decision to play, the Sharks need one of their veterans to step forward. regular season scoring leader Patrick Marleau has only two goals and five points in 12 playoff games this year.
It would be nice to see him, or Heatley, or Boyle, or Thornton take a hold of this Game 7 and rewrite the book on the San Jose Sharks and their inability to win in the playoffs.