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Sharks halfway to exorcising demons

by Dave Lozo /
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Moses parted the Red Sea. Todd McLellan took the San Jose Sharks to the Western Conference Finals.
It's true what they say -- miracles come in all sizes.
When McLellan took over as coach of the Sharks two seasons ago, he inherited a team that earned a reputation of coming up small in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And in 2009, McLellan's top-seeded Sharks lost to the Anaheim Ducks in six games in the first round, doing very little to make fans believe anything would ever change in San Jose.
But in a matter of days, McLellan's new-look Sharks will be beaming with confidence and a new attitude when they play in their first West Finals since 2004.
To borrow a line from Miracle Max in "The Princess Bride," you rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.
Look no further for the change in philosophy than the first round of this year's playoffs. Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle scored on his own goaltender in overtime to give the eighth-seeded Colorado Avalanche a stunning victory and a 2-1 series lead. It was the sort of loss that would have been the beginning of the end for past Sharks teams.
Instead, they ripped off six straight victories en route to eliminating the Avalanche and then bouncing the perennial favorite Detroit Red Wings in the second round in five games.
"You're not out until you lose the fourth game," Boyle said of the team's resiliency. "As much crap as we've taken and the reputation here, it's unfair. There's so many different faces here. We believe in ourselves."
The belief was also apparent against Detroit, where McLellan spent three seasons as an assistant coach before coming to San Jose. Despite having a 3-0 lead in the series, you didn't have to go far to find someone who believed the Sharks were in trouble after a horrific 7-1 loss in Game 4. But they circled the wagons at home in Game 5, beating Detroit 2-1 with a confident performance in a contest that was in doubt up until the final whistle.
"Really, my personal feelings aren't all that important," McLellan said of vanquishing his former employer. "It's about the 21, 22 players, what they feel, what they believe in. It was a very satisfying win. Not because it was Detroit, but more so because our guys fought through it. You saw players evolve, players overcome a lot of their past ghosts. And that's the most rewarding thing."
Joe Thornton, whose house was probably so haunted it could be the setting for a Scooby-Doo episode, exorcised a lot of demons with his 3-goal, 5-assist performance against the Red Wings. Patrick Marleau wasn't battling anywhere near the same type of demons as Thornton, but getting the series-winning goal in Game 5 went a long way toward showing the playoff stage isn't too big for the Sharks' former captain.
"He's been tremendous for us the past two seasons," current captain Rob Blake said of Marleau. "Since I've been playing for him, he's been tremendous. He stepped up when we needed him to again in that series. I thought Joe did the same thing. We need that contribution from them."
Whether it was an issue before McLellan came to town, trust is not a problem in the Sharks locker room today. Players said that they have complete faith in their coach and belief in his system, and that has gone a long way toward transforming the team into the true Stanley Cup contender that it is today.
"He's done a great job," forward Devin Setoguchi said. "The guys have done a good job in following him. He came in two years ago and implemented a system that was a process that we need to establish and change from the year before. I think we've done a good job as far as progressing in his system. He's been there for us and he's helped us become a better hockey club because of it.
"He came in, he had a strict plan of what he wanted us to do. A strict system. Guys have followed it to a T this year. We've really bought in collectively as a group, done things he's asked of us to do. In doing so, it's brought success so far this season for our hockey club. If we can keep doing it to perfection in the ways he wants us to do it, it's going to be a good thing for us."
"You're not out until you lose the fourth game.  As much crap as we've taken and the reputation here, it's unfair. There's so many different faces here. We believe in ourselves." -- Dan Boyle
McLellan said having the trust of his players is nice, but it's a two-way street.
"There's a number of things that had to happen when we came in," he said. "One, we had to get the players to believe in us as a coaching staff. Vice versa, we had to believe in them, and that's happened over time. I believe there's a big trust between our staff and the players. And any time that happens you have the ability to make a difference as a player or a coach."
As great as this season has been for the Sharks, they are only halfway to their goal. Eight wins and two playoff series victories are quite the accomplishment in San Jose. It'd be easy for a second-year coach and a group of guys who have dealt with their share of heartache to get a little too happy about their current standing, but McLellan is keeping everything in perspective for his team.
"The test is only two pages deep," McLellan said. "It's a four-page test."
And it certainly wouldn't be a miracle if the Sharks aced the final two pages.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DLozoNHL

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