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Sharks have eye on the Cup

by Eric Stephens
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- On the eve of the most important postseason in franchise history, the San Jose Sharks already have the Stanley Cup sitting outside their dressing room.
In reality, it's a portrait of the most hallowed trophy in sports. The portrait was hung on the wall at the start of the season to serve as daily motivation of what the NHL's best team is about to chase after -- and a constant reminder of what has eluded them in the past.

"I think everybody knows that this team needs to take the next step," defenseman Dan Boyle said Wednesday. “You’ve got to take advantage of things when you can. This is a pretty good opportunity, maybe the best opportunity that a lot of guys are going to have."

San Jose knows its day of judgment has arrived. A first-ever Presidents' Trophy is a well-earned accomplishment, but the champions of the regular season aren’t revered. Fifty-three wins and a league-best 117 points are franchise records that would be celebrated most places, but not here. Winning the Pacific Division title? Been there, done that.

Since they advanced to the Western Conference finals in 2003-04, the Sharks have been bounced in the second round for each of the last three postseasons despite successive point totals of 99, 107 and 108.

Playoff failure naturally was the topic du jour inside HP Pavilion as team prepared for Thursday's Game 1 against Anaheim.

"In the back of our minds, we've played some pretty darn good hockey," said star center Joe Thornton, a Hart Trophy winner with San Jose three year ago. "We'd like to remember all the good things we’ve done. It’s a new season. We’re excited for that."

In the Sharks’ dressing room, there was that sense of excitement along with a dash of anxiety. Outside the Shark Tank, it remains to be seen if the normally amped-up fan base has the same sense of anticipation that this might finally be the year for a Cup run -- or the feeling of dread that another early playoff exit is on the docket.

After last spring's second-round loss to Dallas. General Manager Doug Wilson did what he could to change the status quo -- and further raise the stakes. Wilson replaced veteran coach Ron Wilson with Todd McLellan, who could readily describe what a championship feels like as an assistant for the defending champion Detroit Red Wings but had never been an NHL bench boss.

Wilson stayed with that blueprint as he retooled his blue line by trading for Boyle and Brad Lukowich and signing Rob Blake as a free agent. All three also have Cup rings -- Boyle and Lukowich with Tampa Bay in 2004 and Blake with Colorado in 2001.

For good measure, Wilson orchestrated the return of famed agitator Claude Lemieux after a five-year absence from the NHL. Lemieux, a renowned playoff performer who won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1995, won four Stanley Cups with Montreal, New Jersey and Colorado.

Lemieux, now 43, has been around long enough to survey the landscape.

"The players that have been on this team remember how bad it feels when you don’t succeed, when you don’t achieve your goals," he said. "This team has had some high expectations in the past and it’s no different this year.

“The guys that have come from other places, like myself, and have a chance to win know how much fun the playoffs are and how demanding [it is]. Hopefully the combination, the mix, the ingredients are the right ones.”

Blake warned that expecting the acquisition of previous Cup winners to provide all the answers for getting past the second round isn’t the end-all solution.

"I don’t view it as a young team needing a hump to get over," said Blake, a 19-year NHL veteran who has played 125 postseason games. "They’ve won more playoff games than anybody else over the past four years. They have the experience in here. The nucleus of these guys have played more playoff games that I have or Danny Boyle has the last few years.

"I don’t look at it as we’re coming in here to help these guys understand the playoffs. They’ve been in it and they understand. They understand what it feels like not to win."

There’s a common perception that previous San Jose teams didn’t respond to the pressure in the key moments. Losses to Edmonton in 2006 and Detroit in 2007 when the Sharks had the chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead in those series have been the defining points.

This year’s version zoomed out to a 25-3-2 start and had the division sewn up by the All-Star break. But they face a dangerous Anaheim team that still has several core players from its 2007 Stanley Cup-winning team and was playing some of its best hockey at the end of the regular season.

Will 2009 be any different for the Sharks? Winger Ryane Clowe thinks so.

"Everyone has more experience," Clowe said. "Everyone is a year older. Everyone definitely is more confident. We went through a tough stretch a little over a month ago and came out of fine. So that was a good sign. It’s a good feeling in here.

“We know we’ve got a good team. The regular season is the regular season -- but still, when you’ve got 50-something wins and the top seed, guys know how good we are. Our whole belief in here is we just have to play up to our ability. We feel like we’re one of the best teams in the league and we feel we like we shouldn’t get beat.”

Boyle, for one, won't be happy with anything less than complete victory.

"Personally," he said, "anything but winning the Cup, I think, is disappointing and a failure to me."

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