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No Shame In Silicon Valley

by Tony Khing / San Jose Sharks
In professional sports, there are two kinds of teams – those who wish for things to happen and those who make things happen.


While the 2010-11 season for the San Jose Sharks ended with a dose of bad luck in the form of a crazy carom off the glass and a bouncing puck with eyes, that moment in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final vs. Vancouver won’t discount what the Sharks accomplished.

Especially in how they reached the conference final for the second straight year and won their fourth consecutive Pacific Division Championship. The Sharks maintained their stature as one of the National Hockey League’s elite teams the old-fashioned way: they earned it.

Over the previous two seasons, the Sharks would start by being one of the League’s dominant clubs. In their first 45 games of 2008-09, they were 34-6-5 and went on to capture the Presidents’ Trophy for having the best overall regular season record, but were eliminated in the quarterfinals. In 2009-10, the Sharks were 28-10-7 after the first 45. They’d finish first in the Western Conference and reach the conference final.

But this year, the situation was different. After that benchmark game No. 45, the Sharks were 21-19-5 and had lost their season-low sixth straight at home to Edmonton, a team that hadn’t been in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for five years.

Vancouver Canucks' Alex Burrows, center, tries to get a shot past San Jose Sharks' goaltender Antti Niemi, of Finland, and Dan Boyle during the second period of Game 5 of NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Western Conference finals Tuesday, May 24, 2011, in Vancouver, British Columbia. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)
“It’s not pretty when you watch the board and you’re out of the playoffs,” defenseman Dan Boyle said around that time.

But two days later, on Jan. 15, the Sharks started a run that would see them win nine of their next 10 games. From mid-January to the end of the season, San Jose went 27-6-4. Along the way, the Sharks would tell the hockey world that this Sharks club wouldn’t be like their predecessors of the previous two seasons.

The road to San Jose’s second straight Western Conference Final really began the day after the Edmonton loss. On Jan. 14, the Sharks had a practice at their training facility. Instead of beginning the session with the basic shooting, passing and skating drills, Coach Todd McLellan used the first 45 minutes to go over their system, first on a white board in front of the player benches and then at center ice.

“We walked through a lot of things, what we believe we do well and what we believe we have to do well to be successful,” McLellan said after that grease board/ice session. “I thought it was therapeutic and healthy for our club.”

“It was really just talking about our game, redefining our game. What do we do, what do we do well, what do we need to do to succeed,” Douglas Murray said then, “so there’s no gray areas or question marks any more.”

Obviously what was said worked. So what happened?

For starters, improved defense. Look at some of the plus/minus numbers. For instance, Patrick Marleau “led” the Sharks with a minus-19. Not too far behind him were Joe Thornton (minus-14), Boyle and Devin Setoguchi each had a minus-13, Joe Pavelski and Niclas Wallin were each minus-12 and Marc-Edouard Vlasic was a minus-8.

By the end of the season, Marleau whittled his number to a minus-3. Boyle (plus-2), Setoguchi (minus-2), Pavelski (plus-10), Wallin (even) and Vlasic (whose plus-14 led the Sharks) made significant improvements.

San Jose Sharks' Dan Boyle, right, celebrates a goal with teammates Joe Thornton, center, and Devin Setoguchi, left, against the Vancouver Canucks during the second period of Game 5 of NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Western Conference finals Tuesday, May 24, 2011, in Vancouver, British Columbia. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)
Yet one of the biggest changes came from Thornton. He ended the season with a plus-4, but an even more impressive number was his takeaways. The man known more for being among the NHL leaders in assists and points paced the League with 114.

“It’s the best I’ve ever seen Joe Thornton play,” Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson said before the playoffs began. “And all of our top players have committed in similar fashion.”

“The forwards have done a great job of being more responsible defensively,” Boyle said in late January. “That’s also created a little more offensively.”

The commitment to defense was reflective in the play of goaltender Antti Niemi, who was signed as a free agent after leading Chicago to last year’s Stanley Cup Championship.

After the loss to Edmonton, Niemi was 9-13-2, had two shutouts, a save percentage of .907 and a goals-against average of 2.85. But from that point on, Niemi was spectacular. He started 34 consecutive games from Jan. 15 through April 4, in part because of his play and due to an injury to Antero Niittymaki, who had been splitting the netminding duties with Niemi. Over those games, Niemi was 25-4-4 (with one no-decision) with a GAA of 2.05, recorded four shutouts and a save percentage of .929.

Vancouver Canucks' Kevin Bieksa skates past San Jose Sharks' goaltender Antti Niemi, of Finland, after scoring the game winning goal during the second overtime period of game 5 of NHL Western Conference final Stanley Cup playoff hockey action Tuesday, May 24, 2011, in Vancouver, British Columbia. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)
Niemi’s performance earned him honors as the Sharks Foundation “Sharks Player of the Year” as well as a four-year contract extension.

“You can do two things as a team,” McLellan said after Niemi signed his extension. “You can play with a goaltender or for a goaltender. This is a goalie who a team plays for.”

Another reason was making some prudent acquisitions. As the Sharks were in their slide, player trade rumors were flying throughout the hockey world. “If we hadn’t started going in the right direction,” Wilson said, “we might have been more active and not for the right reasons.”

But as the Sharks started to trend upwards, Wilson thought the best thing was just to add to the team’s depth. On Jan. 18, as the team was starting its winning ways, San Jose acquired left wing Ben Eager from Atlanta and signed center Kyle Wellwood off waivers from St. Louis.

Eager was Niemi’s teammate on Chicago’s 2010 Stanley Cup Champion team. His acquisition brought more grit and experience to San Jose’s fourth line. Wellwood became part of the Sharks No. 3 line with Torrey Mitchell and Pavelski. His passing skills and on-ice sense resulted in key goals for the Sharks.

San Jose also got a big boost with the play of Calder Memorial Trophy finalist Logan Couture. The 22-year-old center was second amongst rookies in goals (32) and points (56). Couture’s play earned him a spot on the No. 2 line with veterans Ryane Clowe and Dany Heatley.

Those two acquisitions and Couture bolstered the forward lines. Besides, how many teams could say that a 20-goal scorer and an Olympian (Pavelski) was centering the third line?

“Up front,” Clowe said, “this is the deepest team we’ve had.”

The third acquisition filled a void that had been missing since defenseman Rob Blake retired. On Feb. 18, Ian White came to San Jose from Carolina. White, who started the season with Calgary, has probably found a home with the Sharks. His puck handling and offensive skills took a load off Boyle, who had been the team’s primary offensive defenseman.

White’s value showed in the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs. He ended his postseason tied for third in scoring amongst defensemen with nine points (eight assists).

Yet perhaps the biggest thing to come out of the 2010-11 season for the San Jose Sharks wasn’t the improved defense, Thornton’s League-leading takeaway numbers, Niemi’s stellar second-half performance or the minor tweaks on the roster. It’s probably knowing that there’s more to winning which has to be practiced daily through hard work and perseverance.

“Because of our talent level, over the years we’ve won too easily in the regular season,” Murray said. “We got away playing only 20 minutes and winning. But this year, we couldn’t do that. The best thing that happened for us this year is the fact we had to earn victories a lot more.”

And the Sharks will take that lesson into the offseason as they get ready to make things happen in 2011-12.

ONE LAST TIME
Sharks players have today off. They will meet one last time tomorrow at Sharks Ice at San Jose. Please visit sjsharks.com for news and interviews coming out of tomorrow’s final meeting.

STATS AND THINGS FROM 2010-11

OVERALL RECORD: 48-25-9, first in Pacific Division, second in Western Conference

SKATERS

GOALS: Patrick Marleau, 37
ASSISTS: Joe Thornton, 49
POINTS: Patrick Marleau, 73
PIM: Jamal Mayers, 124
POWER PLAY GOALS: Marleau and Dany Heatley, 11
SHORTHANDED GOALS: Thornton and Marleau, 2
GAME-WINNING GOALS: Marleau, 9
PLUS/MINUS: Jason Demers, plus-19
SHOTS: Joe Pavelski, 282

GOALTENDERS
GAMES PLAYED: Antti Niemi, 60
MINUTES: Niemi, 3,524
WINS: Niemi, 35
SHUTOUTS, Niemi, 6
GOALS-AGAINST AVERAGE: Niemi, 2.38

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