The San Jose Sharks rocketed out of the gate this season, but that's nothing new. It's carrying that strong play through 82 games as well as two months in the Stanley Cup Playoffs which has been the issue.
But there's something different about this Sharks team. After their 10-1-1 start this season, it never really let up. That kind of staying power through the regular season should carry into the postseason. And that's why, after nine straight seasons of banging on the door, this is the year the Sharks kick it open and win the Stanley Cup.
The Sharks feature one of the deepest, most-skilled forward groups in the League. Joe Thornton, 34, remains the linchpin, centering the top line and producing at his usual top-end level.
But it's the other Joe who has stepped up his play to Hart Trophy level. Joe Pavelski had his first 40-goal season and his versatility has been invaluable to coach Todd McLellan, who has used him on the wing on the top line with Thornton and Brent Burns, and as a third-line center to spread around the scoring.
More than his offensive contributions, Pavelski kills penalties and is the best on the team at faceoffs.
A top line of Pavelski, Thornton and Burns is big, fast and strong, as is a second line of Logan Couture between Patrick Marleau and Tommy Wingels. Couture is an elite performer and Marleau has 30 goals for the seventh time. Wingels, 25 and in his first full NHL season, has blossomed as a strong net-front presence.
Beyond the top six are impressive rookie Matt Nieto, six-time 20-goal scorer Marty Havlat, Tyler Kennedy and Raffi Torres.
And then there's rookie sensation Tomas Hertl, who returned for the final two games of the regular season. The flashy 20-year-old had 15 goals and 25 points in 35 games prior to sustaining a major knee injury in December. But Hertl has been skating since the end of February and was cleared to practice with contact in early April. Getting Hertl back makes the Sharks even more explosive.
And not only can the Sharks score, their possession numbers are among the best in the League.
Part of the possession-number story is smart defensemen making solid plays out of the defensive zone. The Sharks don't have anyone flashy on defense, but led by Marc-Edouard Vlasic they make the game very difficult for the opposition.
And as far as last lines of defense go, goalie Antti Niemi is a pretty good one. He had another outstanding season, and the team in front of him does its best to make it easy, allowing fewer than 28 shots per game. Niemi certainly knows what it takes to win the Stanley Cup.
The Sharks have been a top-level team all season. There's no doubt they can keep it up long enough to win the Cup.
Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor