Well, these doesn't look like the San Jose Sharks of old. No loss of nerve. No gaffes that give the opposition momentum. In fact, this edition of the Sharks looks determined and composed. And in goaltender Antti Niemi, they seem to have found a dependable puck stopper who battles hardest when the game is on the line. At least through two games, that's the Sharks' team I witnessed.
So, too, did the Detroit Red Wings. Granted, both games were 2-1 affairs, meaning the Sharks held home-ice serve by the slimmest of margins. Ultimately, though, that fact proves my point. These Sharks are comfortable in the most uncomfortable circumstance. When the Wings closed to 2-1 late in the third, there was no sign of retreat. They continued to play hard hockey and battle defensively. I don't know if I've ever seen Joe Thornton compete harder without the puck. Marking Pavel Datsyuk, Thornton continuously used his size advantage to great effect.
Niemi's clutch goaltending -- at his best at the beginning and end of this Game 2 victory -- and Thornton's intensity underscore this team's maturity. Add in a heavier game than I've ever seen from them, and suddenly the Sharks are a team you cannot overlook.
Maybe the public at large has misinterpreted this team as another facsimile of past editions that were regular-season darlings only to disappoint come playoff time. If not for the sensational goaltending of Jimmy Howard on this day and in Game 1, the Sharks would have won both contests going away. They had the Red Wings on the run -- not an easy feat -- for long stretches of the contest.
That Niclas Wallin was the goal-scoring hero again highlights the difference this time around for the Sharks. Instead of bemoaning the lack of tallies from Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, Wallin as the scorer was a byproduct of a complete team game. The Sharks activated their defensemen at every opportunity, with even the likes of heavy hitting, stay at home rear guard Douglas Murray wowing the locals with a strong foray into the offensive zone late in the second period. He protected the puck, shrugged off Selke perennial Datsyuk and made his way to the front of the net, putting two shots on Howard, who was the only one better than Murray on that sequence.
That was but one example of the Sharks' strong showing. So, for now, it is history be damned. In the here and now the Sharks are the higher seed and after two games in the conference semis, the Sharks are the better team. They've done what a team hopes to do on home ice, and that is put pressure on the opponent to have to likewise sweep on home ice.
That's not the only pressure the Sharks are putting on the Red Wings. On the ice, they've been physical and relentless -- more than ever before. And that has been a revelation thus far.