Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
On January 13th, the San Jose Sharks were a team whose trends were all pointing in a downward direction. They were sitting with a record of 22-19-5, and were coming off of an embarrassing 4-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers that had given them their sixth defeat in a row. Their goaltending situation was a mess, they weren’t scoring enough goals to win hockey games, and whispers that the long run of success the team has enjoyed in recent years may have been coming to an end were starting to grow in volume.
Starting on the 15th of that month, the Sharks have completely turned their season around, going 25-4-4 over that stretch and going from playoff dark horses to champions of what has turned out to be the most competitive division in the NHL this season. They have been scoring goals in bunches again, and the entire team seems to be brimming with confidence as the season draws to a close.
Their last two games have been a microcosm of why they’ve been so wildly successful since that fateful six game losing streak. Down 2-0 to the Ducks after a first period that featured the same sloppy play that had infected the squad during their lackluster first half of the season, the Sharks stormed back and took control of the pace of the game. Going up against the red hot Ray Emery and a Ducks team that had been just as hot on the road, the Sharks scored twice in the second and twice in the third on their way to a rousing 4-2 win that thrilled the assembled masses at HP Pavilion. Devin Setoguchi scored what ended up being the game winning tally on a power play with a little over five minutes left in the game, and Patrick Marleau potted his second goal of the night on an empty netter with less than a minute remaining.
Coming off that emotional win, the Sharks could have been in for a letdown against the Kings two nights later, but instead they stormed out of the gate and scored early and often against Los Angeles, winning the contest 6-1 and clinching the Pacific Division title that looked like a pipe dream just three months ago. Antti Niemi made 31 saves, Joe Thornton picked up a goal and assist, and Kyle Wellwood got three points of his own as the Sharks dispatched the Kings with cold-blooded precision.
With the division title in hand and with the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs in sight, the question that must be asked is whether or not this team has the potential to shed the demons of playoffs’ past and actually get all the way to the promised land this time. After all, we’ve seen this story before, with the Sharks grabbing a high playoff seed and then fizzling out when times got tough. Two years ago they came into the playoffs as the Presidents’ Trophy winners and lost a heartbreaking series to the Anaheim Ducks, and last season they were swept out of the Conference Finals by the eventual-champion Chicago Blackhawks. With those previous failures in mind, questions about whether or not San Jose can jump the hurdle that they keep stumbling over are completely valid.
One advantage that the Sharks have as opposed to previous seasons is their goaltender. Evgeni Nabakov was always a rock-solid guy during the regular season, but when the playoffs hit, he turned into something else entirely. Whether or not he can shoulder most of the responsibility for the team’s previous failures, they let him go during the off-season and signed Antero Niitymaki to replace him. When the Blackhawks opted not to match the arbitration offer given to Antti Niemi, the Sharks pounced and picked up the Cup-champion keeper for a very reasonable 1-year contract.
If anyone is to be given credit for this team’s turnaround, Niemi certainly could be one of the first to receive it. He has started every game for the Sharks since February 2nd, going 21-4-3 and he has not allowed more than three goals since an outing against his former team on March 14th. He has displayed the same ability to rise to the moment that helped him become the first rookie goaltender since Cam Ward to lead his team to a Stanley Cup championship, and the Sharks have been way better off for it.
Having Niemi and his playoff experience in the fold is certainly helpful for San Jose, but they are also displaying many of the same attributes as the Finn’s former team in Chicago did last year en route to their championship. They are currently 2nd in the league in face-off percentage, and they have matched the Hawks’ achievement from last year by leading the league in shots on goal. Both of those categories are critical if a team wants to have success in the playoffs, as the ability to control the game via the face-off dot and be able to create tons of scoring opportunities become imperative as defenses tighten up in April and May. The Sharks have been able to do both of those things in earnest as of late, and those factors point to potential success down the road.
Another interesting statistic for the Sharks on offense is the depth of their scoring punch. When the playoffs roll around, it is crucial to be able to get production from multiple places when the playoffs start, and the Sharks are one of the league’s best when it comes to this area. They are the only team in the league that has six players with 50 or more points. The Sharks are led on offense by Patrick Marleau, who has scored 37 goals to lead the team. They have also been pleasantly surprised by the production of Ryane Clowe, who has 62 points (24 goals, 38 assists). His performance is a perfect reflection of the advantage that multiple scoring threats provide, and the team is better off for it.
With all of that success on the offensive side of the puck, the Sharks’ defense has gotten lost in the shuffle someone. As is usually the case with a young goaltender, teams are well off if they can prevent a lot of shots from reaching their keeper, and the Sharks do just that with Niemi. They are currently 8th in the NHL in shots allowed per game, with only 28.8 shots finding their way on net per game. This has led to them being 9th in the league in goals allowed per game, for which Niemi deserves a good chunk of the credit.
Perhaps the most telling statistic when debating the potential of the Sharks to go deep in the playoffs is their ability to come back when they go down in games. In games in which they’ve allowed the first goal, the Sharks have gone on to win 43.2% of those contests, which is the 3rd best rate of success in the league. While allowing the first goal in the playoffs isn’t exactly a recipe for success, the Sharks’ ability to not hang their heads and instead fight to get back into hockey games will only serve them well moving forward, and it makes them an even more dangerous squad to play against.
Even though they are a team of many strengths, the one big flaw in San Jose’s game is their inability to kill off penalties. While they are a very good team at even strength (they score 1.18 goals for every goal they give up at 5-on-5, the fourth best ratio in the league) and on the power play (3rd in the league), they are currently ranked 23rd in the NHL on the penalty kill. Fortunately for the Sharks, they have committed the 5th fewest minor penalties in the league, so they aren’t short-handed very often. They are going to have to keep it that way if they want to find success in the playoffs, however, as teams simply cannot afford to give man-advantage opportunities to their opponents.
With all of those factors in mind, we come back to the main question: can the Sharks overcome their less-than-stellar performances in playoffs past and win the Stanley Cup? While it is easy to dismiss this notion because of all the failures, the reality is that this team might be better equipped to win now than any other Sharks team in recent memory. The depth of their scoring prowess, as well as their all-around solid game on the defensive side of the puck, has allowed San Jose to make it through the rough and tumble Pacific Division, and it will serve them well moving forward. Their potent power play is definitely a big bonus as well.
That being said, the Sharks’ big name offensive talent does need to stay on top of its game in order for them to succeed. The big three of Thornton, Heatley, and Marleau all need to do their part, and rookie center Logan Couture is going to have to shine on the big stage as well.
Needless to say, any team can potentially come out of this talent-rich conference, but with their hot play as of late, the Sharks have to be considered one of the most dangerous squads in the field. If they can continue to do what has made them successful up until this point, the Stanley Cup might just find its way into Shark-infested waters come the middle of June.