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Inside The Cage: A Season of Transition

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

Every team every NHL season has the same ultimate goal: Win the Stanley Cup.

The reality is 30 teams fall short and only one fulfills its dream of hoisting hockey's most treasured hardware.

And every team - even the champion - assesses where they are and adjust in an effort to move forward. Payroll, salary-cap restrictions, expiring contracts and inevitable roster turnover are all reasons for change.  

The Sharks had every intention of contending again in 2017-18. And, after reaching the postseason for the 13th time in 14 seasons, San Jose was focused on advancing to the point of taking that one final step that eluded the team in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

In the background, however, this was also very much a transition season for the Sharks. That's not to make an excuse for falling two rounds short. San Jose was undergoing a delicate process of folding in younger players to blend with prime-age and even more experienced veterans to keep the momentum of the franchise moving forward. 

And, in those terms, the process appears on solid footing.

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Inside the Cage: Free Agents

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

First the regular season. Then the postseason. And now the free-agent season.

The Sharks have plenty of options to contemplate before the July 1 feeding frenzy begins and free agents hit the open market. In the meantime, taking care of their own comes first and foremost.

Joe Thornton and Evander Kane headline the in-house list of pending unrestricted free agents. Veteran forwards Joel Ward, Jannik Hansen and Eric Fehr also have expiring contracts.

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Inside the Cage: Sudden Exit

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

The Sharks clean out lockers on Tuesday, disperse hither and yon for the summer and - at some point - will reflect on the positives that came from the 2017-18 season.

They'll recall this was a team that found a way into the postseason for the 13th time in 14 seasons despite the offseason departure of Patrick Marleau and a season-ending injury that sidelined Joe Thornton in late January.

Expectations were not lowered even though a number of teal-behind-the-ear skaters including Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, Marcus Sorensen and Joakim Ryan were folded into the San Jose lineup.

And young veterans such as Tomas Hertl, Chris Tierney, Joonas Donskoi, Melker Karlsson, Barclay Goodrow and Dylan DeMelo were challenged before training camp to take another step in their personal development, and they all delivered by making bigger contributors to the cause.

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Inside the Cage: Striking First

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

The Sharks and Golden Knights have reached the nitty-gritty portion of their second-round playoff series.

Both teams are plenty accustomed to each other after five games. Each knows what the other is trying to do. Each knows what works, and what still needs adjustments. And both teams are getting a little cranky when they see those same opposing uniforms by now, too. In other words, it's time to decide this thing.

The Sharks host Game 6 late Sunday afternoon knowing it's a must-win. If San Jose can knot the best-of-seven series it's back to Las Vegas for the Sharks' 11th all-time Game 7 on Tuesday, and obviously the first for the expansion Golden Knights.

San Jose would be leading the series - and with a chance to close out at home - if the Sharks had imposed their will longer against Vegas in Game 5 on Friday night. But instead the Sharks fell into a familiar early hole, and despite rallying from four down to make it a one-goal game late, they fell 5-3.

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Inside The Cage: Big Man Hockey

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

Tomas Hertl is playing what might be described as "Big Man Hockey" these days.

That's the term he coined to deflect attention from himself after another masterful playoff game on Wednesday that resulted in a 4-0 win for the Sharks to tie their best-of-seven second-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights at two wins apiece.

Hertl found the back of the net for a second straight game to become San Jose's playoff goal-scoring leader with five. And the powerful and versatile forward has one point in seven of his team's eight games this postseason.

"He's been one of our best guys here in the playoffs," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said.

Hertl has picked up against Vegas where he left off against Anaheim during San Jose's first-round sweep of the Ducks. He had goals in each of the final three games in that series after contributing an assist in Game 1. Held off the board in the second-round opener, Hertl has used his big body to create all kinds of problems for the Golden Knights' defense ever since.

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Inside the Cage: 3 Keys to Even the Series

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

The Sharks must meet three challenges in Wednesday's Game 4 to re-knot their Stanley Cup playoff series against the Golden Knights - stay out of the penalty box, better contain Vegas' top line and remain positive.

Listening to the comments following Monday's 4-3 overtime loss suggests San Jose is on its way to mastering the third point. The Sharks have been a resilient group all season, and their attitude is not waning.

"We're getting better every game in the series, so that's a good thing," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "Every game our game is building, we're getting better. We're realizing what works against them, and in this series there's a lot of hockey left to be played."

"We'll be ready for Game 4 back here in our building," Sharks forward Evander Kane added. "If we play like that again on Wednesday we like our chances."

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Inside the Cage: Response Made

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

You know the Sharks got it right in Game 2 when no one was asked afterward how much Evander Kane was missed.

Mind you, his teammates and coaches will certainly be happy to welcome their top-line threat back on Monday when the knotted best-of-seven second-round Stanley Cup playoff series against Vegas shifts to SAP Center in San Jose for Game 3.

Logan Couture's power-play goal 5:13 into a second overtime period on Saturday fueled a 4-3 victory, handed the Golden Knights their first playoff loss in history and validated Peter DeBoer's inclination how San Jose would respond to a 7-0 loss during Thursday's series opener.

"We were better everywhere," the coach said. "We were tighter, our team was better. We were better in every situation. I knew we would be, and the guys responded."

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Inside the Cage: Ready to Respond

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

The Vegas Golden Knights are the only team this postseason to win five straight out of the gate. Never mind the whole shock and awe reaction to what this brash expansion franchise is doing in its inaugural season.

That storyline is getting pretty stale by now.

Vegas is making this whole hockey thing look far too easy. And it's not.

At some point anyone of sound mind who has been exposed to the rigors it takes for a team to climb the mountain has to surmise the Golden Knights will stumble at some point. Someone is going to beat this team and plant the seed of doubt in their collective minds.

That is the task for the San Jose Sharks on Saturday night.

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Inside the Cage: Nighty Knight

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

The Sharks will surely use the experience from their regular-season series against the Golden Knights and apply what they learned from Vegas' first-round sweep when they meet in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal.

One miscue they won't repeat, however, is the gaffe head coach Peter DeBoer committed during San Jose's first visit to the expansion team's home on the Vegas Strip.

"I won't make the mistake again of walking to the rink through a mob that probably started drinking 4-5 hours earlier," DeBoer said good-naturedly. "I took a lot of heckling."

The Sharks come in as villains who threaten to halt this magical inaugural season that has captured the imagination of a new market and sent a boisterous and supportive fan base on a seven-month spiral to hockey heaven.

Well, into the second round at least, which is light years from what was expected.

"We understood they were a team that was going to compete right from the start," Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said, "And that's what they're going to hang their hat on."

As we embark on only the eighth series in Stanley Cup history to pit two teams fresh off sweeps in their preceding seven-game series, here are the keys:

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Inside the Cage: #DuckHunted

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

And on the eighth day, the Sharks rested.

In the span of exactly one week San Jose won four pressure-packed games against a big, strong, veteran, postseason-tested rival to advance beyond the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 13th time. It marked only the second time in 37 all-time playoff series' that the hosts swept an opponent.

"Any time you sweep a team it's a lot closer than you realize," Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. "There were some key moments guys made some big plays. Definitely it gives us confidence we can win."

As important as closing out the Anaheim Ducks with a 2-1 victory in Game 4 on Wednesday at SAP Center is the fact the Sharks matched what their next opponent accomplished when Vegas dispatched the Los Angeles Kings in a minimum amount of games as well. Earning the same rest as the Golden Knights puts San Jose on similar footing in preparation to face the surprising expansion team in Round 2 next week.

"You never expect sweep, you always want sweep," Sharks alternate captain Logan Couture said. "You always want to win every game you play. They're a very good team over there. They didn't have their best in a few games. We took advantage of that and it's good to get some rest now."

With Vegas looming on the horizon, here's what went right to allow the Sharks to beat an Anaheim team they met for only the second time in postseason.

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