|San Jose Sharks' Patrick Marleau and Mark Bell congratulate goalie Evgeni Nabokov after beating the Los Angeles Kings 6-2 April 1, 2007. |
On paper there are few teams that look as primed to challenge for a Stanley Cup this spring than the San Jose Sharks. But if there is any team in the League that understands the concept that the games are played on ice and not paper, it’s the Sharks.
In their short history, the Sharks have experienced both dramatic triumph in the playoffs and utter heartbreak. They have toppled mighty foes and fallen just short of realizing their own dreams over the course of their nine tournament appearances.
The Sharks got their playoff history started on the right note when they went into the tournament as the No. 8 seed in the West in 1994 and took down the top-ranked Detroit Red Wings in the opening round in seven games. The Sharks were bounced by the Maple Leafs in the second round.
In 1995 the giant slayers from San Jose returned to the playoffs as a No. 7 seed and provided more magic when they sent the No. 2 seeded Calgary Flames packing in another seven-game thriller. Detroit swept the Sharks in the next round.
San Jose was knocked out in the first round in 1998 and 1999, but returned in 2000 as the No. 8 seed again and for the second time, they eliminated the No. 1 St. Louis Blues in seven games. Dallas drowned the Sharks in the second round.
They found first-round defeat in 2001 and in 2002, the Sharks lost in the second round. In 2004, though, the Sharks went further than they ever have in the playoffs, getting all the way to the Western Conference Finals. They lost to the Flames in six games, a painful loss because they felt they could advance all the way to the Final.
Last season, following a first-round win against the Nashville Predators, the Sharks lost for the second-consecutive year to the eventual runners-up when the Edmonton Oilers knocked them out of the second round in six games.
But this season is different. This time around, the Sharks are loaded with a deep corps of talented forwards, they are chock-full of skilled defenders, they’ve got solid goaltending and the Sharks boast an interesting mix of cagey veterans and fresh-faced youngsters.
Guys like Bill Guerin were brought in before the trading deadline, elite scoring threats like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo strike fear into enemy defenses, and playoff newbies like Marc Edouard Vlassic and Ryan Clowe are chomping at the bit in anticipation of their first Stanley Cup Playoff experience.
In their recent past, the Sharks have experienced the agony and ecstasy of playoff pressure. They have eliminated higher-seeded opponents, and they have also slipped just short of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. With such an eclectic mix of young and old in their dressing room, the Sharks will have plenty of players capable of offering priceless pearls of playoff wisdom when the tournament takes flight.
Guerin, who was acquired at the trade deadline for his fearsome shot and goal-scoring ability, was also brought to San Jose for his veteran leadership. And playoff experience. Guerin won a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 1995 and has 96 games of postseason experience under his belt. He knows what it feels like to reach the promised land that is a Stanley Cup championship.
“Just going through your head everything you’ve been through to that point, to that feeling,” Guerin says. “Everything you’ve been through, everything you’ve done. Every ounce of hard work and sweat that you put into it has paid off now.”
While Guerin knows the pride and the emotion one feels when he gets the chance to raise the holy grail of hockey high overhead, plenty of his teammates have no idea. Curtis Brown, for example, knows what it feels like on the other side of that post-series celebration, firsthand knowledge of coming thisclose of realizing his hockey dream.
Brown, who is now 31, played for the Buffalo Sabres in 1999 when they were eliminated in the Finals when Dallas’ Brett Hull’s skate was in the crease.
“The first time I saw the Stanley Cup I was playing in Buffalo, maybe my first or second year and we went to the Hockey Hall of Fame and we saw it on display there,” Brown says. “Other than that, I had seen it on TV when different teams had won it. Obviously that’s the ultimate goal and at this stage of my career. You don’t just know how many times you’re going to have an opportunity to fight for it. I had one and we came up short. You just want to make the most of all your opportunities because it seems like time flies by and not everyone gets that opportunity. So you definitely want to grab hold of it if you get the chance.”
That was the closest Brown ever got to getting a day with the Cup.
Teammate Joe Thornton has won plenty of hardware in his career, including last year’s Art Ross and Hart Trophies as the NHL’s leading scorer and Most Valuable Player. He would trade all this medals and all his trophies for the Stanley Cup.
“Every time we played hockey as a kid in the backyard you’d always play for the Stanley Cup,” Jumbo Joe says. “I think that’s what I remember the most. It was never about watching one game and seeing one guy raise the Cup. It was always about playing backyard hockey for a Stanley Cup.”
Perhaps this is the season Thornton gets his first opportunity to play for the Cup. If the Sharks do go deep in the playoffs, it will also be Matt Carle’s first chance to get his name engraved on the most famous trophy in sports.
“I think my first memory is probably ’93 when the Kings and Canadiens were in the Final,” Carle says. “There was a guy by the name of Cory Millen who was from Alaska who played for the Kings. And obviously I was a pretty big Gretzky fan. I remember being pretty upset when the Canadiens won. So that was my first memory of it.”
Those are the memories he has now. But when the Sharks season is officially over, whenever that may be, Carle and the rest of his teammates – young and old – will likely have a whole new set of memories.