Can the Sharks avoid yet another postseason failure?
San Jose has talent, and some years -- say this time last year -- the Sharks might have more skill than just about anyone in the league. Yet the club has been to the Conference Finals only once, and has never played in the Stanley Cup Finals. Last year, the Sharks won the President's Trophy and then promptly flopped in the first round to the eighth-seeded Ducks.
Frankly, it's becoming boring, especially for the San Jose players themselves, sick of the nonstop references to last year's ouster. This year's team doesn't believe that past disappointments have any bearing on their current task -- facing the Colorado Avalanche in the first round.
So, strictly going on this season and the current Sharks and their recent play, how do they set up for the first round?
Well, San Jose did have one big post-Olympic glitch, losing six in a row in mid-March. At that point, San Jose GM Doug Wilson told FanHouse that stumble might actually help the Sharks -- better to iron out problems in March than April. And, indeed, San Jose went 8-1-1 following that losing spell.
"I think when we look back, we'll think that tough patch was a good thing," San Jose defenseman Dan Boyle said. "We knew we still had some work to do."
Toward the end of the season, the Sharks really worked on limiting odd-man rushes after some troubles in that area, and they felt that they improved the final handful of games. And Evgeni Nabokov played well in the final three games of the season, a relief for the team because he'd allowed 12 goals in three games right before that.
"He's been really good, really solid," Sharks left wing Dany Heatley said, pointing specifically to a game at Calgary in which Nabokov stopped 38 of 39 shots. "Nabby has made the plays he had to make."
"(Calgary) was as good a game as he's had all year," Boyle said. "He's seeing the puck really well. He's full of confidence."
And how are the men right in front of Nabokov? Boyle is an offensive-minded defenseman, and one of the better ones in the league, but even he said, "defense wins championships." He and Douglas Murray are veterans, and Rob Blake, the team's captain, is really, really a veteran -- and like Boyle, he has won a Stanley Cup, which in this dressing room makes for very valuable experience. Blake, 40, is a step slower than he was in his prime, and that makes many people around the Sharks feel as if Marc-Eduard Vlasic, 23, might be a real key to any series -- he'll need to up his game even more.
The Sharks shouldn't struggle to score -- they have plenty of premier scorers, five players with 20 goals or more. Yet this time last year, they got little secondary scoring; the top line scored four goals vs. Anaheim, and the rest of the lines combined for three total. When there was a lot of finger-pointing at Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in the wake of the loss to the Ducks, team insiders felt that was unfair -- it was the supporting cast that didn't carry their weight.
"That obviously could have been the difference," second-line left wing Ryan Clowe told FanHouse. "That's something you look back on."
"This guy has been maybe our best player over the last month," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "He's very confident right now."
Now, that must translate into playoff hockey.
"Our line has to produce," Clowe said. "It's about scoring depth in the playoffs. Every year, you see guys step up and raise their game up. We just have to do it -- words mean nothing."