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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

Sharks’ early-season success tempered by past playoff blunders

As the National Hockey League season nears its midway mark, the league standings are an appealing sight to any Sharks fan. Having accrued the best 26-game start in the NHL’s illustrious 91-year history, San Jose has steamrolled over the competition, boasting the league’s best record, goals per game average, goal differential, shots per game average, shots against per game average and shot differential heading into their Dec. 11 tilt with the Anaheim Ducks. Suffice to say, it’s been a good year. But it makes little difference if the Sharks end the season 55-0. As with every incarnation of this team over the past three years, San Jose’s season will be judged solely on their playoff success, or lack thereof.

While this year’s team is decidedly more impressive than those of previous seasons, the Sharks are no strangers to hot starts and regular season success in general. In the league’s three post-lockout seasons, San Jose has placed fourth, fourth and second in the competitive Western Conference. What leads to their league-wide reputation as chokers is that they’ve also bowed out in Game 6 of the second round of the postseason each of those years, always to lower-seeded opponents. Their early exits have had an adverse effect on me personally, often causing me to spontaneously arise in the middle of the night, screaming curses at the likes of Shawn Horcoff, Robert Lang and Brenden Morrow. So is this finally the year the Sharks get over the hump and win the Stanley Cup? I think so, and here are three reasons why.

1. Coach Todd McLellan

General Manager Doug Wilson was swift in handing Ron Wilson his termination notice following the team’s gut-wrenching quadruple-overtime loss to Dallas last spring. Reports abounded that the team had tuned out Coach Wilson; the team’s sub-standard play certainly supported that contention. Doug Wilson was equally quick in hiring a new coach, identifying a diamond in the rough in Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Todd McLellan. A Cup winner with the Wings last June, McLellan not only brings a wealth of experience to the table, but his offense-oriented, puck-possession style has thus far complemented the Sharks’ talented forwards seamlessly. His institution of what essentially serves as the antithesis to Ron Wilson’s stifling defensive style bodes well for San Jose’s playoff success.

2. The revamped blueline

Doug Wilson certainly didn’t sit on his hands during the off-season following his hiring of McLellan. After losing trade deadline acquisition Brian Campbell to free agency, Wilson moved quickly to sign 38-year-old, Cup-winning defenseman Rob Blake to a one-year contract. Twenty-four hours later, Wilson traded underperforming youngster Matt Carle and a draft pick to Tampa for Cup-winning All-Star defenseman Dan Boyle and veteran Cup-winner (noticing a trend?) Brad Lukowich.

Tampa has already gotten rid of both Carle and the draft pick, so it’s safe to say the Sharks won the trade but, more importantly, the advent of all three defensemen—particularly Boyle and Blake—have immensely assisted San Jose’s once-stagnant power play. Sharks defensemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Christian Ehrhoff are also enjoying eye-opening seasons, largely thanks to the influence of Boyle and Blake. With the Red Wings winning it all last year in no small part due to the play of their dynamic defensive duo of Nick Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, the impact of Boyle and Blake on San Jose’s bid for the Cup cannot be overstated.

3. Joe Thornton

As the former league MVP and leading scorer goes, so go the Sharks. And for three years, the destination has been an early playoff exit. Thornton’s reputation around the league has expectedly mirrored that of San Jose: phenomenal in the regular season, but once April rolls around, all bets are off. And with just 37 points in 70 career playoff games—contrasted with 788 points in 781 career regular-season games—Thornton is as much a cause of his unfavorable rep as the rabid Canadian media.

But ask anyone who closely observes the team and they’ll attest to the fact that it’s been a different story with Jumbo Joe this season. Finally using his 6’4”—235 pound frame to drive to the net with conviction, Thornton has apparently realized skill only takes one so far. His work ethic and willingness to fight for the dirty goals are an indication that he’s finally ready to shed his label as a chronic playoff underperformer. Courtesy of his improved play, an impeccable defense and inspired coaching, it looks like his team has all the makings of a Cup winner.

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