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Five Questions: Sharks need road success, Pavelski

by Mike Battaglino /

There's a question that's been haunting the San Jose Sharks for quite some time:

Will they ever win the Stanley Cup?

Here are five questions they must answer to win it this season:

1. Can the Sharks win a game on the road?

There is absolutely no question they can win at home; San Jose went 17-2-5 at HP Pavilion this season, and is 110-34-20 there in four previous seasons under coach Todd McLellan.

But based on the Western Conference seeding, the Sharks will have to win a road game or two to advance through each round. This season they were 8-13-2 in enemy buildings, including road losses to non-playoff teams Nashville, Calgary, Colorado and Phoenix. They were 2-3-0 on the road in April.

The Sharks did win three road games in a six-game, first-round series victory against the Los Angeles Kings in 2011, and won their only game in a five-game loss to the St. Louis Blues last season on the road.

2. Which Joe Pavelski will show up?

When the energetic forward is on his game, the Sharks have had playoff success. When he's been held off the score sheet, the Sharks have gone home early.

Last season, Pavelski did not have a point in the quick loss to the Blues. The prior spring, he had 10 points in 18 games on the way to the conference final, one season after he had 17 points in 15 games in reaching the third round. The season before that, he had one point and the Sharks checked out in the first round.

Pavelski has moved up and down the lineup, and after the Sharks traded away Ryane Clowe and turned Brent Burns into a forward, Pavelski settled on the third line with Raffi Torres and Tommy Wingels, but he still plays on the top power-play unit.

3. Is Antti Niemi fresh enough to do it again?

Arguably the most accomplished playoff goaltender in this year's tournament, Niemi played 43 of the 48 games this regular season, a workload he's never experienced before.

Niemi carried a 24-15 record into last season's playoffs, and in the five games against the Blues saw his teammates score two goals total in three of the losses.

Prior to winning the Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, Niemi played 39 regular-season games. Prior to the Sharks' run to the conference final in 2011, he played 60 regular-season games.

4. Can Larry Robinson make a difference?

In his first season as an assistant coach with the Sharks, they ranked sixth in the NHL on the penalty kill (84.9 percent). Last season, the team ranked 29th (76.9).

That means the Hall of Fame defenseman did the first thing he was brought in to do. Now he must lend his valuable experience in the League's second season.

Robinson won the Stanley Cup six times as a player with the Montreal Canadiens, coached the Devils to the Cup in 2000, and was an assistant on their championship teams of 1995 and 2003.

He should be able to help in so many ways once the playoffs begin, and perhaps will prove to be postseason ingredient the team was missing all along.

5. Is this -- finally -- the year for one of the most successful regular-season teams of the past decade?

Since the 2003-04 season, when the Sharks reached the Western Conference Finals for the first time, they have won their division five times and never finished lower than second.

They have compiled at least 100 points six times, with another season of 99 and one of 96.

They have won at least one playoff series six times. They reached the Western finals again in 2010 and 2011.

But they never have made it to the Stanley Cup Final, losing in six games to the Calgary Flames in 2004, swept by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 and bowing in five games to the Vancouver Canucks in 2011.

With eight of their top players at least 30 years old, and Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau each turning 34 before next season, this could be the last hurrah for this core. Whether it ends with the ultimate prize is yet to be answered.

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