Jim Kelley
Thursday May 6th, 2010

Rest assured that the San Jose Sharks won't shed that "choke" label with a win tonight vs. the Detroit Red Wings. Sure, it would be a four-game sweep of a team that's been to the Stanley Cup Final in each of the last two seasons, winning it in 2008, and a model of consistency for the better part of two decades.

That's the trouble with labels. They are perhaps the easiest thing to acquire in the not-so-wide world of sports, but they are the most difficult to shed, even if you shred what is arguably the best franchise in hockey by beating it one more time in any of however many games might be remaining.

But here's the good part: for the Sharks, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Be it a sweep or a series that ends with a shot boucing off a stick, a skate, and the backside of Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard in the second overtime of Game 7, carrying the weight of having something to prove can work to the Sharks' advantage. One can argue that it already has.

You could see the makings of it in San Jose's first-round win vs. Colorado. Granted, the Avs should have been beaten. They were an eighth seed going against a perennial No. 1, and even if they were scrappy and seemingly unafraid of their opponent, they didn't have the maturity or overall firepower to keep pace with the Sharks. Yet, when Colorado goaltender Craig Anderson started the series looking like the second coming of Patrick Roy, the Sharks didn't cower. Even when the Avs shut down their No.1 line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, sending a shiver of fear through San Jose's already near-paranoid fan base, the team that everyone expects will lose when it matters most continuned to hang together.

When Dan Boyle, a veteran defenseman brought in to help change the team's mindset in pressure situations, scored into his own net to hand the Avs a Game 3 overtime win that even they had trouble accepting, the Sharks simply stated "tomorrow is another day" and went on to win the series.

It's rare when someone uses the words "mentally tough" and "San Jose Sharks" in the same sentence, but that's what's happening in these playoffs. The Sharks are using years of finger-pointing, adversity and sometimes pure bad luck as a motivational tool. They're a team that has taken a pledge of "no mas" regarding the endless criticism that has come from losing to teams they were expected to beat. In essence, they've turned a negative that can be as debilitating as any major injury or bad break into what amounts to a rallying cry. They are playing for no other reasons other than to win and, quite frankly, shut up their critics.

"That's the biggest difference between now and previous years," goaltender Evgeni Nabokov said recently. "You don't get too down... We play the same way no matter what's happening."

Nabokov, who has shouldered a fair share of the criticism for the Sharks' playoff failures, did not wilt when Anderson got the early upper hand for Colorado, and he's been dominant vs. Detroit. His glove save of Henrik Zetterberg's penalty-shot in Game 3 can be viewed as a turning point in this series. On that single play, you could see the Red Wings sag and the Sharks, who appeared to be losing the momentum battle to a desperate team, rose to force a tie and win the game, in overtime. It was a game the Red Wings felt they absolutely had to have and one that, in past years at least, would have likely been a San Jose loss.

You can see the Sharks' newfound resolve in the way the second line, the one anchored by Joe Pavelski, goes out and calmly makes the plays necessary to win even when the Red Wings are able to shut down Thornton, Marleau and Heatley. You can see it in the way coach Todd McLellan quietly erases negative thoughts whenever they might crop up, be it after one of his players hands the Avs a game-winning goal or when his team walks into Joe Louis Arena with the kind of awe usually reserved for the old Montreal Forum, or the fear that used to come from facing the door to the old Philadelphia Spectrum.

McLellan, a former understudy to Detroit coach Mike Babcock, has been a big part of that mental turnaround. He acknowledges there is pressure on his team, but he's worked hard at focusing it in a positive not mind-crippling way. He knows there is pressure on his goalie, his big line and his team's overall defensive play, but he addresses it all firsthand and encourages his players to do the same.

"I think the pressure on some of the individuals on our team is no different than on the group as a whole," McLellan told David Pollak of the San Jose Mercury News. "There's questions that people would like answered outside of our organization and sometimes inside of our organization, and Nabby probably would be one of them."

Translation: people don't believe, so prove them wrong.

"Nobody puts more pressure on himself than Nabby," McLellan added. "He's not going to cave in to media or anybody outside. He expects a lot from himself."

That's not to say the Sharks can't be beaten. It's not to say that the Red Wings, who know a thing or three about overcoming adversity, can't come back and make this a series. But what it does say is that this is a team that believes in itself and that it can overcome a hot goaltender or even a game-winning goal that one of their own has put into their net.

You can argue that the Sharks are playing the underdog role in these playoffs, but with their talent, that's a stretch. Still, that attitude works for them. They approach every game aware of past failures, but with the idea that they can win if they play their game, work harder than the other guys, and not let the bad breaks that come in every game gain control of their heads. Twice coming back against the Red Wings and outscoring them 5-1 in the third period so far in the series only helps them build on that.

You can be certain that they aren't going to change even if the Red Wings win Game 4.

Regarding the Pittsburgh-Montreal series in which the Penguins are up, 2-1, one gets the sense that it will be decided by which team best manages its injury list and which goaltender plays with the most consistency.

Both teams have been losing key players faster than Sidney Crosby can complain about an overlooked call. Still, the Penguins may get center Jordan Staal (severed tendon in his toe) back in the lineup, if not tonight then for Game 5. That's no small thing for the Pens. Staal is by far the best checking center in the series and he's also an offensive threat. His absence has made it easier for the Canadiens to concentrate on shutting down Crosby and applying some physical pressure to Evgeni Malkin, a large-sized forward who doesn't always play that way.

Still, it was thought at the beginning of this series that it would be decided by goaltending and whether upstart Jaroslav Halak could stay with reigning Stanley Cup-winner Marc-Andre Fleury. After a shaky start by Fleury, the question was whether he could match the oft-times heroic efforts of Halak. That was answered Tuesday when Fleury rose to his expected level and shut out the Canadiens at the Bell Centre in Montreal. It was an all-world performance for a goalie who still has issues with consistency, even if he did face a mere 18 shots.

He has a Cup ring on his finger, but Fleury still has a thing or two to prove to fans and, most importantly, his teammates. He did not distinguish himself in the early going against Ottawa, but because of superior firepower and the Senators' own problems in net, it was not a major issue. Now he's facing a true challenge.

Halak, along with Boston's Tuukka Rask, has been the story of the playoffs to date. Fleury, who came into Game 3 with a miserable .889 save percentage, appears to have accepted the challenge. Coming off Montreal's improbable seven-game triumph over Washington, Halak appeared to have the edge on Fleury, who had allowed three goals or more in six of the first eight games he played. After that shutout in Montreal, the Penguins are hoping that leaky streak is over.

"There have been questions," coach Dan Blysma acknowledged when speaking of his goaltender. "We have seen them at different times of his career. He's never been one to put up blazing numbers, but he's always been one to answer the game-save situation or has thrown up great games, and I think our room believes in the guy we got in the net."

That seems like a glowing endorsement until you pause on the words "I think."

In truth, for the Pens to win this series, they need to believe their goaltender will be there for them every game. Getting a shutout win in Fleury's home town, a place where he is not known for playing well, will go a long way toward building confidence in the rest of the Penguins, but only if he follows up with a series of consistent efforts.

It wouldn't be the playoffs or the NHL without a rules controversy. This year, it's what defines a kicking motion. Rules state that the puck cannot be kicked into the net, but what defines "a distinct kicking motion" has been debated for years and it's back on the minds of hockey fans and more than a few general managers after a pair of clearly subjective calls.

An informal poll by the Canadian broadcast outlet TSN maintains that at least five (out of 17 GMs contacted) believe the rule should be revisited. Fine and dandy for some point in the future, but the problem now is that no one, especially the players, seems to know what they can and cannot do regarding redirecting the puck. That's led to confusion, some bitterness from teams that feel they've scored clean goals that the video replay people won't accept, and a general feeling that the league is applying a standard that is difficult to comprehend both on the ice and in the replay booth.

The Buffalo Sabres picked up the club option on head coach Lindy Ruff last week, putting him on the same page with GM Darcy Regier regarding length of term. Both men now have one year remaining on their contracts, but managing partner Larry Quinn said he would sit down with the duo sometime in the future, presumably to talk about extensions.

Ruff and Regier came under some fire from fans in the community for the team's first-round loss to the Bruins, but neither seems to be in serious trouble. It remains to be seen, however, what the future truly holds. There have long been rumors, never completely denied by the club, that the franchise is for sale, and during the course of the recently completed season there were more about a group out of Chicago coming to a verbal agreement to purchase the club from owner Tom Golisano. However, Golisano was said to have backed away near the end of the calendar year.

Having the longest-serving coach and GM tandem in the league under contract for a decent term (say three years) would seem to make sense regarding added value to the franchise, but the Chicago people reportedly have hockey roots and their own people in mind should they gain control of a team in Buffalo or elsewhere.

It's a situation that bears watching.

My apologies to all those who pointed out that the Canadiens have 24 Stanley Cup banners and not the 26 I mentioned in last week's column.

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