To steal a marketing idea from the San Francisco Giants, late March and early April have been 'torture' for Sharks fans. Torture in a good way. For the past four weeks every Sharks win was salvation, every loss too much to live with. Entering last Thursday there was still a chance that San Jose would not qualify for NHL post-season play. Unthinkable for the Sharks.
Catapulted by some of the best regular-season hockey in memory, it was the Sharks' sweep of division foes Dallas and LA that have bolstered Teal-tinted Cup aspirations. While tournament seedings, and regular season stats provide the basis for prognosticators world-wide, all that matters now is the team that hits the ice this Thursday in St. Louis. The Sharks won 6 or 8 down the high-stress stretch, they appear to have found their game and their confidence.
Unlike seasons in the past San Jose enters round 1 as the underdog. In round 1 it will be the St. Louis Blues who must wear the tag of favorite. St. Louis had a fantastic year. Following their stumble out of the gates, Ken Hitchcock was tapped to take over the coaching reigns of the Blues. Hitchcock's bench record speaks for itself. He's won a Cup in Dallas and has also coached some very good teams in Philadelphia. But are the Blues ready for prime-time? No question they have some of the most promising young players in the league. David Backes, TJ Oshie and David Perron are hard workers up front. The blueline is anchored by Alex Piedrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. And in goal Jaroslav Hallak and Brian Elliot have posted some gaudy stats in goal. 9 Blues players have registered 10+ goals in the regular season.
The Blues are a great example of how hard work and defense can mold a team's identity. The chink in the armor as I see it is, can the Blues get it done in high pressure situations? Despite the fact that St. Louis has vets like Jason Arnott, Andy McDonald and Jamie Langenbrunner, playoff experience could come into play in round 1. The Sharks have found their way to the Western Conference finals each of the last 2 years. Playoff experience is what the Sharks have in spades. Guys like Joe Thornton
, Dan Boyle
, Patrick Marleau
and others have been there. No, never a Stanley Cup final, but rather being on the ice for game and series changing shifts, key moments on the road, adversity.
If the Sharks are to upset the Blues in the opening round it will need to be that experience, that puts them into positions to win games at home and on the road. San Jose's 3rd and 4th lines will need to contribute each and every shift. They'll need to bring energy, and the occasional goal too. Let's not forget that Antti Niemi
has won a Cup. His time in Chicago should serve him well. He's been able to survive the roller-coaster emotions in a game, a series and playoff season.
In round 1 both St. Louis and San Jose will need to be at their very best if they are to move on. For the Sharks their penalty kill will need to be a game-changer. Timely kills will need to be momentum grabbers. San Jose's face-off men have been great all year. They too will need to continue to battle hard inside the circle. Niemi must make those critical stops when called upon. He will need to deflect rebounds to safe parts of the ice. His goaltending must provide his club confidence in all three zones.
I'll take the Sharks in 6 games. The hard push to the playoffs give the Sharks something they haven't had in the recent memory, trust and a positive vibe entering the pressure-cooker called the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This Thursday the Sharks will line up against the Blues. They need to look into the young St. Louis eyes and see if they see fear. If so...they can take advantage of a thing called experience, a thing called momentum.