The San Jose Sharks have been to the Western Conference Finals two straight seasons. With most of the core players still in place, this is the season they take the next step and claim the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
The Big Why: The Sharks boast one of the League's most dangerous offenses, led by two lines capable of dominating the opposition.
On the top line, Joe Thornton remains one of the League's premier set-up men, and he's flanked by a pair of elite scorers in Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau. Pavelski had his first 30-goal season, and Marleau went into the season's final day needing one goal to hit 30 for the sixth time in seven seasons.
The second line also features explosive skill with emerging superstar Logan Couture between Ryane Clowe and Martin Havlat. Couture showed in his second season that his 30-goal rookie season was no fluke. Clowe is one of the top power forwards in the game and Havlat, finally healthy after missing three months with a hamstring injury, can push the pace and fill the net.
Their bottom six forwards are defensively reliable and check fiercely. Michal Handzus anchors a solid checking line with Dominic Moore and T.J. Galiardi. And few players bring more postseason experience than Moore, who has gone to the Eastern Conference Finals the past two years (Montreal 2010, Tampa Bay 2011).
The Sharks also have a defense group that's strong in all areas of the game. Dan Boyle remains one of the better offensive-minded blueliners in the League, and Brent Burns has a cannon for a shot from the point. With those two quarterbacking the power play, the Sharks finished with one of the top-five units in the League.
The Sharks also can get physical on the back end. Douglas Murray, when healthy, is one of the biggest hitters in the League. Marc-Edouard Vlasic isn't a big player, but is fearless and blocks a ton of shots.
And backstopping everyone is Antti Niemi, who had another solid season in goal. Niemi also has
The Big Uh-Oh: The inconsistency that plagued the Sharks this season returns at the worst time. And starting a series on the road -- where the Sharks barely were a .500 team -- hurts them when starting the first round away from HP Pavilion.
The Final Argument: Getting to the conference finals the past two years, this Sharks group knows what it takes to win this time of year. Forget the struggles they had during the regular season, they will flip the switch and use their experience and offensive firepower to overwhelm teams. And if they make a mistake defensively, Niemi is more than capable of making the big save at just the right time. After two years as a bridesmaid, it's time for the Sharks to make that final step and take home the Stanley Cup.
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK