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Less pressure, more performance for Sharks

by Eric Gilmore

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The San Jose Sharks under coach Todd McLellan reached the Western Conference Finals in 2010 and 2011 after winning Pacific Division crowns. They won the Presidents' Trophy for the first time in franchise history in 2008-09, McLellan's first season, with a team-record 117 points.

Yet, as the Sharks entered the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year as the No. 6 seed in the West, McLellan had a good feeling about his under-the-radar team that had to rally down the stretch just to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"Coming in, it felt a little bit different this year," McLellan said Tuesday, minutes after the Sharks beat Vancouver 4-3 in overtime to sweep their quarterfinal series. "In the past, you kind of felt the pressure. This year we didn't feel that way. … We're a loose group, playing free. Not a lot of expectations that are put on us from the outside that have been there in the past. And just a different group of characters that came through.

"We're put together a little bit different. In the past, we had maybe some marquee names that we were counting on, and now we have some household names. Those type of players have elevated their play. I think we're more of a team now than we were in the past, if that makes any sense. I keep telling them everybody's important, because everybody is. That's kind of our mantra going forward."

The Sharks made the playoffs for the ninth-straight season and the fifth year in a row since McLellan was hired. They're in the playoffs for the 16th time in their 21 seasons but have yet to reach the Stanley Cup Final. The Sharks think they're built to make a deep run this year and a strong push to reach their ultimate destination.

"We've had guys in this room who have won Cups before, who have been in the playoffs numerous times, and for some reason there is that loose feeling here," Sharks forward Tommy Wingels said. "I don't know if it's a different sort of confidence this year or what it is, but the team is excited to play. This is the best time of the year, the playoffs, and we are a confident group. We're looking to build on that."

The Sharks showed their cool under pressure during their sweep of Vancouver, coming from behind in three of their four victories. In Game 2, Patrick Marleau scored the tying goal with 56 seconds left in regulation and the Sharks won 3-2 in overtime on Raffi Torres' game-winner. In Game 4, Joe Pavelski pulled the Sharks even with 4:27 left in regulation, and Marleau won it in overtime, knocking in a rebound after a Joe Thornton shot.

In past postseasons, Thornton and Marleau faced by far the most scrutiny on the team. This year they're sharing the spotlight and the workload with a long list of teammates. Seven Sharks scored at least one goal in the first round, and 13 had at least one point.

Logan Couture and Pavelski led the Sharks with eight points apiece. Pavelski had four goals and Couture three. Thornton (five assists, six points), Marleau (four goals), Dan Boyle (three assists, four points) and Brent Burns (two assists, three points) all made big contributions. Torres had his game-winning goal.

"I think a lot of the contributors on the team are the younger guys now," veteran defenseman Brad Stuart said. "I think our leader right now is [Couture]. He's doing everything for us. And maybe that takes some of the pressure off [Marleau, Thornton and Pavelski]. I think our goaltending's been great. You need that. That's very important. And our [defense] is solid. I like our [defense] as it is and we have some guys that can jump in if they need to. We're still waiting for [Jason Demers] to get back. That will make us even stronger.

Logan Couture
Logan Couture
Center - SJS
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 8
SOG: 11 | +/-: -1
"I think it's just a good group where it's tough for teams to focus on one guy or one line. We kind of have it balanced, and that's important. That's what you need at this time of year."

Goaltender Antti Niemi, who won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, is having his best season with the Sharks and was named Wednesday as one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy. The Sharks allowed eight goals in four games against Vancouver. During the regular season, they ranked sixth in goals-allowed at 2.33 per game, and were sixth in the penalty kill.

The Sharks got faster at the NHL Trade Deadline when they added Torres and moved out Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray and Michal Handzus. They added more scoring depth by shifting Pavelski from second-line right wing to third-line center late in the season. And they added more offensive firepower by moving Burns from the blue line to a top-six forward spot midway through the season.

"That's one thing people always talk about," Marleau said. "You have to have that coming into the playoffs. You have to have four balanced lines and be able to play everybody against whoever is out there. We did that the first series and we have to continue that next series."

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