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'Big Three' and potent power play keyed Sharks' rise

by Brian Hunter /

The San Jose Sharks are used to 100-point seasons and cruising into the Stanley Cup Playoffs as one of the favorites to contend for the Cup.

This season, the Sharks will post their lowest point total since 2002-03 -- the last time they failed to qualify for the postseason. Thanks to a three-game winning streak that continued with Thursday's thrilling 6-5 shootout win in Los Angeles, the Sharks will be in the round of 16 for the eighth straight season, and if they complete the home-and-home sweep against the Kings on Saturday, they can claim a fifth-straight Pacific Division crown and the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.

Even though these Sharks haven't resembled the powerhouse regular-season squads of years past, they will get the opportunity to accomplish what those teams couldn't: Win three rounds in the playoffs and compete for the franchise's first championship.

Here are six reasons they got to this point:

1. The 'Big Three' come through: Top forwards Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski haven't been immune to criticism whenever San Jose has struggled, but Thornton nearly has been a point-per-game player, Pavelski has a career-high 31 goals and Marleau is one shy of his sixth-career 30-goal season. All three have point-scoring streaks coinciding with the team's current run of three wins in a row. Pavelski started the streak with a pair of goals against Dallas. Marleau scored on the power play in the third period of Thursday's win in Los Angeles. All Thornton did was record a Gordie Howe hat trick, playing an all-round tough game.

Antti Niemi
Antti Niemi
Goalie - SJS
RECORD: 34-22-9
GAA: 2.42 | SVP: 0.915
2. 'Nemo' finding his game: Put aside the fact Antti Niemi allowed five goals Thursday -- he still picked up the win and continued what has been a strong stretch run for the third-year netminder who already has a Stanley Cup to his name with the 2010 Blackhawks. Niemi has won six of his last eight starts and given up two goals or fewer six times. His workload has increased in both his seasons with the Sharks -- from 39 games as a rookie in Chicago to 60 in his first season with San Jose to 67 in 2011-12 -- and he's responded with numbers (2.42 goals-against average, .915 save percentage) that rival his career totals and are more than respectable.

3. A surge at the Shark Tank: It can be debated how big an advantage home ice in the playoffs really is, but San Jose would do well to win the Pacific and earn it for at least the first round. The Sharks enter Saturday's rematch against the Kings having won four in a row and six of their last seven at HP Pavilion. Their 25-12-3 mark on home ice this season doesn't look as impressive as, say, the dominant records achieved by the Red Wings or Blues, but it's a whole lot better than the 17-17-7 they finished with on the road.

4. The return of Martin Havlat: It's safe to say San Jose didn't get the season it expected from the 30-year-old veteran, who came over from Minnesota in the Dany Heatley deal. Havlat, a six-time 20-goal scorer, managed just a pair of goals and 15 points in 26 games before a hamstring injury in December sidelined him for nearly three months. Since returning, he has five goals and 10 points in a dozen games, including an overtime winner as part of a two-goal effort against Detroit in his second game back, plus a big power-play goal in the third period Thursday in Los Angeles.

5. A potent power play: Whichever playoff opponent draws San Jose in the first round would be wise to play a very disciplined series -- the Sharks enter the final game of the regular season ranked second in the NHL with the man-advantage, clicking at a 21.0-percent efficiency rate. Logan Couture (11 power-play goals), Marleau (nine) and Pavelski (eight) rank in the top 50 in the League, while Brent Burns and Dan Boyle are potent on the back end. Equally important, the Sharks have yielded just four shorthanded goals this season, among the fewest in the League.

6. Success in the shootout: Only two teams -- New Jersey and Minnesota -- won more games in the penalty-shot competition than San Jose's nine. While that won't help the Sharks where tiebreakers are concerned (if they don't win the division, they'll be fighting for the seventh seed and would fall to eighth in the event of a tie in points with the Kings or Coyotes), if a few of their shooters hadn't converted or Niemi made two or three fewer saves, it's possible they're on the wrong side of the cutoff line at season's end.

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