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Sharks back in playoffs with potentially best team yet

by Corey Masisak

The San Jose Sharks are back in the postseason for the 10th consecutive season after clinching a place in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Monday.

It's the second-longest active postseason streak in the NHL, and it might become the longest in a few weeks if the Detroit Red Wings don't find their way into the top eight in the Eastern Conference. Though the Sharks never have reached the Stanley Cup Final, the franchise's ability to be among the top teams in the League consistently is remarkable.

The San Jose Sharks made it 10 straight seasons with a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but this season's version could be the one best suited to take the franchise to its first-ever Stanley Cup Final. (Photo: Bill Smith/NHLI)

The dawn of the salary cap era was expected to make it harder for teams to stay among the top contenders for extended periods of time. Nearly every team that was among the League's elite before the 2004-05 lockout either has missed the playoffs once or gone through a full rebuilding phase. The Sharks and Red Wings stand alone as franchises that were able to transition to the "new NHL" as it was called at the start of the 2005-06 season and remain among the League's elite.

San Jose has a chance to win a division title for the sixth time in this 10-season span, and doing so would help the Sharks avoid a potentially brutal first-round series with the Los Angeles Kings, who knocked them out of the playoffs last season in a seven-game series.

This Sharks team might be better equipped for a deep playoff run than any of the previous nine. Here are five reasons why they're going to have a chance:

1. They keep the puck

San Jose is a dominant possession team. The Sharks have spent the season jostling with the Kings and Chicago Blackhawks at the top of the NHL leaderboard in Corsi-for percentage, Fenwick-for percentage and shots-for percentage.

The dominance goes beyond "advanced" statistics as well. The Sharks have 2,002 shots on goal at even strength, which leads the League. They average nearly two shots on target per game more than any other team in all situations.

San Jose leads the League in faceoff percentage, but the Sharks' dominance is more about a mobile, skilled defense corps that transitions the puck well, and allows one of the best collections of forwards to play in the offensive zone and wear out opposing teams and goaltenders.

2. Not your average Joes

The Sharks have a foursome of forwards that stacks up against any in the League. Trying to pick which is the best of the bunch might be tricky and could change from season to season, but Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton have been dominant players this season.

Joe Pavelski
Center - SJS
GOALS: 34 | ASST: 33 | PTS: 67
SOG: 195 | +/-: 24
Pavelski likely will garner some back-of-the-ballot votes for the Hart Trophy. He entered play Tuesday tied with Sidney Crosby for fourth in the League with 34 goals and second to Thornton on the Sharks with 67 points. When Sharks coach Todd McLellan wants it, Pavelski slots in as the best No. 3 center in the League. But he also has played on the wing with Thornton or Logan Couture, or as the No. 2 center when Couture was hurt.

Thornton is competing with Crosby for the assists title and leads a team full of strong possession players with a Corsi-for percentage at even strength of 59.1 (he's above 60 percent when the score is close). There's an argument for Couture as the team's best forward, but he missed time with injury this season.

3. Sweet 'Pickles'

Marc-Edouard Vlasic no longer is the most underrated defenseman in the NHL. Why? Because he's finally garnering the attention he deserves.

Dan Boyle has long been considered San Jose's No. 1 defenseman, but he is getting older and Vlasic has emerged as one of the top two-way defensemen in the sport. He doesn't post gaudy offensive totals like other players who are going to dominate the Norris Trophy discussion, but Vlasic's ability to play sound defense while helping the team transition to offense is among the very best in the game.

He earned praise for his work at the 2014 Sochi Olympics as a standout on a defense corps that included some of the League's top defenders, and his play for the Sharks has been exemplary. When Vlasic is on the ice the Sharks dominate. He leads their defensemen in Corsi-for percentage at even strength at 58.2, despite consistently facing tough competition.

Justin Braun and Jason Demers deserve plaudits for helping make the Sharks' defense corps a deep one, but Vlasic has become the anchor and worthy of being discussed among the best at the position.

4. Lock it up

The Sharks have one of the best rosters in the League, so maybe a playoff berth was inevitable. Antti Niemi has been a consistent workhorse in goal, so a team with this group of skaters and solid goaltending would need a lot of injuries for things to go sideways.

One of the biggest reasons the Sharks have booked a spot in the playoffs this early is Alex Stalock. It's often an overlooked factor, but the backup goaltender can be the difference for a team in Presidents' Trophy contention.

Stalock is 11-4-2 in 21 games (16 starts), with a 1.85 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. He's allowed Niemi some rest and provided the team with great goaltending in a spot where clubs are happy to receive average work.

5. 'Hertl Power'

Tomas Hertl was the League's most exciting rookie at the start of the season and would have been a worthy contender to Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche for the Calder Trophy had he remained healthy. He had 15 goals and 25 points in 35 games before a serious knee injury that might end up costing him the rest of the season (there is a chance he could return during the playoffs).

Hertl gave the Sharks even more depth up front and a jolt of dynamism that helped make San Jose the best team in the NHL early in the season. He's also a symbol of how general manager Doug Wilson has been able to reshape his roster without needing a "rebuilding" phase.

Along with Hertl, players like Braun, Demers, Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto have injected youth and pace into the Sharks. Patrick Marleau remains an elite skater, but the young players have helped transform the Sharks into a team that might not have the best team speed in the League but the one that plays the fastest.

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