The San Jose Sharks had what many thought to be a horrific, underachieving start to the 2010-11 NHL season, but since the All-Star break, the Sharks have stepped-up their game on all fronts and moved into the first place position of the Western Conference’s Pacific Division.
Although they lead their division with 84 points and a current record of 39-22-6, they sit third overall in the Western Conference behind the Detroit Redwings and of course, the Vancouver Canucks. In past seasons, the Sharks have been labelled as Stanley Cup contenders as they have had many successful regular seasons, but have received much scrutiny over the inability to perform in the playoffs.
In 2008-09, San Jose finished the regular season with a record of 53-18-11 which captured them the league’s President’s Trophy, but they were defeated in the first round of the playoffs by the Anaheim Ducks. Last season, the Sharks lost the Presidents Trophy to the Washington Capitals, but held on to their first place finish in the Western Conference.
That year, in the 2010 playoffs, they failed to make it to the Cup final once again, but more importantly gained some ground as several expected top-performers broke the curse that was attached to their names in the post-season.
Joe Thornton had his best playoffs as a San Jose Shark as he posted 3 goals and 9 assists for 12 points in 15 games, while Patrick Marleau had an impressive 8 goals and 5 assists for 13 points in 14 games, not to mention a career best 44-goal regular season.
Although the pair along with the rest of the team showed some improvement last season, the team still lost the faith of many as far as their chances of winning a championship goes, and may be the number one club in the NHL labelled as “playoff choke artists”.
People may laugh at the fact I am going to be making a case that the Sharks could win the cup this season, but in 20 years of existence, the Sharks have many other teams in common that have failed to win the cup with a plethora of talent. The Washington Capitals being one of them.
Now, getting back on track, my argument as to why this year may provide them with their best chance yet.
Winning the Presidents Trophy or even finishing first in your conference puts on a whole lot of added pressure to perform in the playoffs and win the cup. I believe the Detroit Redwings were the last team to win a Presidents Trophy and a Stanley Cup Championship in the same year, proving to all other PT winners that capturing the regular season title has no indication as to how you will do in the playoffs.
This year, the Sharks really had to identify themselves as a team in the early going. With Joe Thornton the newly named captain and two new players manning the net, the team was off to a shaky start and had to regroup and come together as a squad.
Since the All-Star break, the team has done just that as the new additions of Ian White, Ben Eager and Kyle Wellwood have helped their depth on defense as well as the third and fourth lines, while the rest of the team has been better than ever at producing secondary scoring.
Although the big-guns of Dany Heatley, Thornton and Marleau are on pace for career-low seasons, the rest of the team has upped the anti as far as contributing points goes, and not one regular roster player is without a goal.
Power forward Ryane Clowe, who was named an assistant captain at the beginning of the year, has played some of his best hockey of his career and could arguably be one of the best all-around players who consistently drops the gloves in the entire league. With 19 goals and 31 assists, Clowe is just five points shy of reaching Mike Richards totals for this season (19-36-55, 54PIM), and leads him in penalty minutes with 84.
Devin Setoguchi is another secondary player who has played exceptionally since the All-Star break. Setoguchi, who had a 30 goal, 60-plus point season in his sophomore year, struggled offensively last season and to start this year, but has worked hard to improve his game as of late and now has 18 goals and 29 points.
Just as Clowe, Setoguchi and many other Sharks are having quietly successful seasons, the team as a whole seems to be as well, but there hasn’t been much talk of them doing damage in the upcoming playoffs. As my headline reads, this may be just what the team needs.
Vancouver And Philadelphia will have the pressure on them to win the Cup, and if San Jose stays around the third our fourth seed, they could be the team that comes from behind and surprises everyone.
If you look at their current roster, the difference between this year and past years comes in the Ben Eagers and Logan Coutures – experienced, Cup-winning impact players like Eager, and young energy players with a knack for scoring like Couture.
If Antti Niemi can also continue playing like he has and put up a playoff performance like he did last year in Chicago, coupled with the aforementioned performance of lines one through four, it seems the Sharks have all the necessary pieces to have their most successful playoff run as a franchise to date.