If the belief that getting hot at the right time can make all the difference between early elimination or extending a playoff life, then fans, coaches and players of the San Jose Sharks
should be prepared for a lengthy postseason.
Let’s face it -- there’s been no hotter team in the NHL than the group from the Bay Area, which established a franchise record 11-game winning streak from Feb. 21 through March 14. The Sharks have silenced virtually all of the critics, earning 28 points in March and catapulting over Dallas and the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks to the top of the Pacific Division. That’s quite a feat, considering coach Ron Wilson’s team had been looking up at those clubs for more than four months.
Still, maybe the second seed in the Western Conference and home-ice advantage isn’t that big a deal for the Sharks, who own the best road record in the League this season. Additionally, the team is among the League’s top five in fewest goals allowed and in penalty killing.
San Jose center Jeremy Roenick said the team began to turn things around following a five-game losing streak in mid-February. It should be noted that during that season-high slump, winger Patrick Marleau was sidelined four games with a groin injury, and tireless goalie Evgeni Nabokov received a rare night off in a 3-2 loss to the Devils on Feb. 20. It was after that setback in New Jersey that the Sharks began their rise in the Western Conference. During its 11-game unbeaten string, the club averaged three goals and yielded just 1.63 a game.
“Everything started going right at that time, and it just built on itself,’’ Roenick said. “It’s an energy, and everybody thrives off it. We feel really confident right now.’’
Since Wilson took over the reins as coach in 2003-04, no team has appeared in more Stanley Cup playoff rounds (seven) than San Jose and only the 2007 Ducks (six) have won more playoff series than the Sharks (four). The Sharks dropped a six-game series to the Calgary Flames in the Conference Final in 2004, suffered a six-game setback to the Edmonton Oilers in the Conference semifinals in 2006 and dropped a six-game series to the Detroit Red Wings in the Conference semis last winter. Top-line center Joe Thornton, now in his third season with the Sharks, senses a different mentality among the players this season.
“I feel we’ll know what it takes to get over that hump that we couldn’t get past in the previous two years,’’ Thornton said. “I love our toughness, our speed and our goaltending. Our confidence is high at the right time of year. I’m really looking forward to the postseason.’’
The Sharks boast a well-rounded unit and made the biggest defensive splash at the trade deadline with the acquisition of two-time NHL All-Star Brian Campbell. In order to acquire the two-way defenseman, the Sharks sent bruising wing Steve Bernier and a first-round pick in the June draft to Buffalo. In addition to Campbell, the Sharks also acquired a seventh-round pick from Buffalo in 2008.
Campbell, despite his responsibility along the blue line, is second on the team in points behind Thornton, who is one of eight players with 10 or more goals this season. That list includes Marleau, Roenick, Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo, Joe Pavelski, Torrey Mitchell and Devin Setoguchi. Roenick, in fact, led the team in game-winning goals this winter. Additionally, Mike Grier, the wily 11-season veteran, Patrick Rissmiller and enforcer, Jody Shelley, have also played big roles. Grier, in fact, has done wonders for first-year performer Mitchell, who has transformed into one of the League’s top defensive forwards.
Defensively, Campbell and Craig Rivet, a solid veteran with offensive flair, have become steady forces for the impeccable Nabokov. Matt Carle, Christian Ehrhoff, Kyle McLaren and youngsters Doug Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have all impressed. The Sharks defense put the hammer down on Anaheim on March 21 when it held its opponent without a shot in the third period of a 2-1 victory. It marked the first time in eight seasons that Anaheim had been held shotless during a period in club history.
The Sharks picked up 31-year-old free-agent goalie Brian Boucher on Feb. 26 to back up Nabokov. The nine-season veteran posted a 24-save, 2-0 shutout against St. Louis in his debut with the Sharks on March 1. Make no mistake, however, San Jose will ride Nabokov as long as possible.