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Rebooted Sharks eyeing breakthrough win in Game 5

San Jose aiming to flip the script of playoffs past

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

SAN JOSE -- Walk into the San Jose Sharks dressing room at their practice facility, and the first thing you see is a sign with their logo and two words in all caps: "EXCEED EXPECTATIONS."

Those words are significant for two reasons: Someone made a conscious decision to put them where the Sharks spent time and money to renovate their workplace over the summer, and frankly they are the opposite of what this franchise has represented.

For years, the Sharks did not exceed expectations. They failed to meet them. They carried the weight of them.

Watch: Look inside Sharks locker room

The mentality was among the things that needed to change, and now the Sharks are tied 2-2 with the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final entering Game 5 on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports), as close as they have ever been to the Stanley Cup Final and so close to breaking through.

In a sense, they have already exceeded expectations considering few picked them to make it this far this season. But wouldn't it be something if they finally made the Cup Final, or finally won the Cup, when they weren't supposed to have a chance?

"When I took the job in the summer, we wanted a fresh room, a fresh start for everybody," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "We didn't want it to be just lip service. I was telling the players this was a chance for everybody to clear the slate and start fresh and put last year in the rearview mirror. I purposely didn't watch a lot of tape of them last year in order to do that. I think redoing the room was a big part of that."

The Sharks raised expectations by succeeding in the regular season and consistently making the playoffs. They became a popular pick to win the Stanley Cup, but they won three games in three conference final appearances. They often exited in the first or second round.

Video: STL@SJS, Gm4: Pavelski tips home Thornton's feed

In 2014, they seemed to reach the low point when they blew a 3-0 series lead in the first round and lost to the Los Angeles Kings. General manager Doug Wilson said publicly that players told him they were "coworkers and not teammates." Coach Todd McLellan stripped center Joe Thornton of the captaincy.

Before last season, the players took a team bonding trip to Lake Tahoe, making an effort to iron out issues and stick together. Center Joe Pavelski eventually became captain. But in the end, the Sharks didn't even have the chance to disappoint in the playoffs because, for the first time in 11 seasons, they didn't even make the postseason.

The Sharks parted ways with McLellan and brought in DeBoer.

"I think this group hit rock bottom last summer: missing the playoffs, coach moving on, all the things surrounding it, all the noise around the group," DeBoer said. "I think they all went home in the summer. I've been the benefactor of them hitting rock bottom. You know, when you have good people that get to that point, they look in the mirror. They don't want to be there again."

While the players were gone for the summer, the Sharks renovated the dressing room, and they didn't just put "EXCEED EXPECTATIONS" at the entrance. They made the environment less sterile, decorating it with team colors and warm wood accents.

They made sure to celebrate their history in the hallways, and yes, there is a lot to celebrate. 

We should all underachieve like the San Jose Sharks. They included displays of uniforms, awards, milestones, big moments and more.

But in the players' lounge, the Sharks made subtle changes to encourage the guys to hang out with each other. There used to be small circular tables. Now there are big long tables with a lot of chairs on both sides.

"I think last year the most you could fit at one table was three," Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon said. "Well, now we've got 10, 12 guys eating breakfast together. I don't know what the right word would be, but I think the team has just come together a little bit more."

Is the right word "inviting"?

"Yeah, more inviting," Dillon said.

In the inner sanctum of the dressing room itself, they put up words, phrases and photos. Some are what you see around the NHL: "GRIT & SPEED," "PRESSURE," "DETAILS." But one is unique to the Sharks: "BREAK THE LINE." When a fisherman hooks a shark, the shark fights to break the fishing line and swim free. When adversity strikes, fight. Break away.

Video: York Hottest Plays: Sharks' game rounding into form

The photos are conspicuous in that they all show groups of players smiling and celebrating together: Thornton, Pavelski and Logan Couture; Thornton, Pavelski and Brent Burns; Burns, Tomas Hertl and Marc-Edouard Vlasic; Thornton, Pavelski, Patrick Marleau ….

"The coaches had a new mentality, some new sayings, and basically told us this is a new team," Couture said. "Whatever happened in the past happened, and we're going to move forward and make the season about us right now."

This is not the reason for the Sharks' resurgence. But it reflects the situation and the effort to change it in a tangible way, and when the Sharks come to work at their facility, they are surrounded by it; cocooned in it.

"You may not notice it when you go to grab your sticks, because you're seeing it there every day," Dillon said. "But I can tell you that's up there. I can tell you easily 'EXCEED EXPECTATIONS' is there. And I think that's something that's just continued to be in our head. 

"And whether we know it or not, it's part of a habit, a habitual thing. Hopefully it can keep translating on the ice for us."

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