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After a run of early post-season exits, Sharks try to shed label of playoff underachievers @NHLdotcom

SAN JOSE, Calif. - From the moment they arrived in training camp to the final day of the regular season when they wrapped up the top seed in the Western Conference, one question has been hanging over the San Jose Sharks.

Will this be the year that the Sharks can finally shed their label of playoff underachievers and taste some post-season success?

It's a question that the Sharks have long grown tired of but one they know will keep coming until all the talent they have translates into a long post-season run.

"It's a new year. That's all I have to say," defenceman Dan Boyle said Monday. "It's a new year, new players, new team. It's a new year, man. That's it. You have to turn the page at some point. We have to win some games so these questions can stop."

The Sharks get their chance to do that starting Wednesday night, when they host the eighth-seeded Colorado Avalanche in the opener of their first-round series.

Hanging over them all series will be last year's first-round flop against Anaheim, when the Sharks lost in six games despite having the best record in the NHL in the regular season.

"We're a different team," coach Todd McLellan said. "We keep talking about last year. We keep going back to last year. I've been asked that question a hundred times. This is a different team. Half the faces in there weren't involved in the playoffs last year with our club. The organization failed last year, the group of players who were here last year didn't succeed. This is a different group. We're moving forward. We're not talking about last year."

McLellan's message was echoed throughout the locker-room by his players, who stressed that all the changes the team made in the off-season should provide a clean slate heading into this post-season.

The splashiest move was the trade for high-scoring forward Dany Heatley, who delivered with 39 goals and helped form one of the league's most dangerous lines with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

But the additions of Scott Nichol, Manny Malhotra and Jed Ortmeyer helped improve the team's grittiness and faceoff success. There was also a change of leadership with defenceman Rob Blake taking over the captain duties from Marleau.

Marleau responded to the demotion with a career-high 44 goals, while Blake will bring a new leadership voice in the locker room during this post-season run.

"The franchise itself hasn't done what it needed to do in the playoffs the past couple years," said Blake, who won the Stanley Cup with Colorado in 2001. "This team, we don't know. We wanted to get in this position, we wanted to be in the playoffs and set that record straight. This is a new team, a new adventure for us coming into the playoffs this year."

The Sharks know the true measurement of the changes won't come until the team finally tastes some playoff success. That's to be expected for a team that has averaged about 109 points per season the past five years - second best in the NHL - but hasn't made it past the second round in that span.

After being beguiled by that second-round hurdle for three years, the Sharks couldn't even get that far last season despite setting franchise records with 53 wins and 117 points.

San Jose's loss in six games to Anaheim marked just the third time since the current playoff format was adopted before the 1993-94 season that the team that won the Presidents' Trophy failed to get out of the first round.

The Sharks lost the first two games at home to the Ducks last season, were badly outplayed in the pivotal Game 4, and then got closed out on the road in Game 6 to start a long and difficult summer.

"We're not the only one who has been through that," goalie Evgeni Nabokov said. "Detroit has been through that a lot of times. Other teams have been through that. All that matters is who is going to be the better team on Wednesday. Then it will be Friday and Sunday ..."

The bulk of the criticism fell on three of the team's biggest stars: Thornton, Marleau and Nabokov. Thornton's post-season play has never matched his brilliance in the regular season as he is averaging nearly 50 per cent more points per game in the regular season than the playoffs since joining the Sharks in November 2005.

Marleau has also struggled the past three post-seasons, although he played with a sprained ligament in his left knee last year against the Ducks.

Nabokov was badly outplayed in last year's series by Jonas Hiller and has not proven he can carry a team when needed in the post-season. The questions about Nabokov only increased after he allowed six goals in less than two periods of Russia's 7-3 loss to Canada in the Olympic quarter-finals in February.

That same tournament gave Thornton and Marleau a taste of championship success. They joined Heatley and defenceman Dan Boyle on Canada's gold-medal winning team, possibly erasing the label that they were unable to win when it counted.

"It's more about the group than the pieces," McLellan said. "If the group as a whole can pull together, we're in a good spot."

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