It's the best time of year!
Or is it just another postseason in the Bay Area?
Through 45 games, it looked last year’s top seed in the West was going to have a hard time making the playoffs. With a record of 21-19-5, there was a lot of concern surrounding the Sharks. Since then, however, Todd McLellan’s gang is a staggering 23-4-4, taking back their Pacific Division lead and hoping to once again shed its label of being an annual postseason disappointment.
Just when you thought the Sharks had gotten over the hump in 2010 with its second round triumph over rival Detroit, they were swept in the conference finals by Chicago. It was San Jose’s first trip to the third round since 2004.
The same band of brothers is basically intact, but with a different look in net. The organization waved goodbye to mainstay Evgeni Nabokov and welcomed in the duo of Antero Niittymaki and Antti Niemi.
When Niittymaki went down to injury in mid-January, Niemi took the starting job and hasn’t looked back. Last year’s Cup-winning goaltender has 22 wins and a 2.15 goals-against average since Jan. 15. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the team went on their second half run once Niemi started playing lights-out every night.
GM Doug Wilson was so pleased with Niemi’s performance that he rewarded him with a four-year extension last month.
‘Rookie’ Logan Couture has been a pleasant surprise, as well. He played in 39 games last year (including playoffs), but is technically still a rookie by NHL standards. The 22-year-old has been one of the team’s best all-around players this season, racking up 30 goals, 53 points and a plus-19 rating.
On paper, this is a very balanced Sharks team with depth. They possess three lines that can chip in, a blueline that plays well as a unit, and a goaltender that won 16 playoff games a year ago.
But the question I keep coming back to is: How is this any different than Sharks teams in the past? In 2008-09 they claimed the Presidents’ Trophy and were the top seed last spring. (One plus is that they won’t have a target on their back like the last two years, going into April as one of the contenders and not ‘the team to beat.’)
I’m skeptical as to whether this really is their year to make it to the Cup final. Yes, they have a solid all-around team. Yes, they play good defense in front of Niemi. Yes, they have been the West’s best since mid-January. But between Nabokov’s Vezina-caliber seasons, Joe Thornton’s dominance and their usual red-hot March, we’ve said these things about the Sharks in the past at this time.
It’s going to be all about matchups for the Sharks. You can say that about any team, but if they have to face Anaheim or Chicago, they may not get out of the first round. On the contrary, a date with Nashville or Phoenix right off the bat may suit them well. Furthermore, I think they match up well against Detroit, but not Vancouver.
Is this San Jose’s year to make a deep run to the Stanley Cup final? Until they prove otherwise, I cannot say yes; I have sipped on the Kool-aid too many times.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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