Cory Sarich destroyed Patrick Marleau with a massive hit in the 2008 Stanley Cup quarterfinals.
True, the San Jose captain and his team showed some grit and determination by eventually beating the Calgary Flames, but the damage had been done. Their weakness was exposed and a message was sent to their next opponent, the Dallas Stars: Bully the Sharks and win the series.
This was the weakness that only those of us who followed the Sharks day to day knew would eventually expose itself. The team was loaded with talent, yet when it came to getting physically punished by varying "thug and goon" lines, the Sharks had no solid answer.
The lack of consequence for opposing teams created a chain reaction that eventually brought down the Sharks' entire game plan. Players normally best at creating offensive scoring chances would focus on payback and order, with frustrating results.
The Sharks had created a scoring machine but had neglected to fill the position that makes hockey unique to all sports. That position? The enforcer.
Fast forward to this season.
The Sharks against the Philadelphia Flyers had career tough guy Riley Cote take a run at Sharks' player Dan Boyle.
Within two seconds, Jody Shelley squared off against Cote and the fight was on. (For the sake of unbiased reporting, Hockeyfights.com has Shelley winning the fight by a decisive margin.)
Regardless of who won the fight, a new message had been sent to all opponents: You no longer have free reign at our players.
This message, along with Shelley's on ice presence, has been one of the keys to the Sharks' staggering success this year. With the thugs and goons kept in check, the offensive machine can focus on putting shots on the net. This has been Coach Todd McLellan's strategy from day one, and it seems to be working.
Shelley originally joined the Sharks last season (from Columbus on Jan 29, 2008), but only played 31 games with the team and hadn't yet solidified his position as the team's watchful eye. The enforcer vacancy mixed with an inexperienced and decidedly soft defensive core left the Sharks vulnerable in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Now in his first full season with the Sharks, Shelley has established himself as a valuable grinder and workhorse with an ability to deliver swift justice to anyone caught trying to send a message to the Sharks' scoring lines. Shelley's hard work and physical aggressiveness seems to be infectious.
Not wanting to be upstaged by a forward, the defensive core has seen an increase in hit stats. Defenseman Doug Murray is on pace to double his hit stats from last season.
To give sole credit to the Sharks' success this year to a single enforcer would be a stretch, but looking at this team versus last year's team, it's obvious that Shelley's role as a true enforcer has been the glaring difference that seems to keep the machine rolling.
Protect the machine and the machine will produce.