Are the San Jose Sharks teasing us again?
They do it to us every single year, don't they? Just when you assume that it's OK to dismiss the Sharks as regular-season points collectors who will fray and fade in the heat of late spring, they get rolling again and look like one of the NHL's hottest teams heading into the postseason.
Then they make you wonder again.
Coming into this week, San Jose had won 10 of its last 12 games, but had its six-game winning streak snapped by the Panthers on Tuesday. Still, the Sharks' 97 points were good for the league's third-highest total going into a Thursday night battle with the Ducks, which will be for the Pacific Division lead.
So the question once again is which San Jose team do you believe in? The team that was challenging for the Presidents' Trophy, hot on the heels of the Blues? Or the one that sank to the depths of a rare home-ice loss to woeful Florida just when it seemed ready to make a serious run at the league's best record?
In this, their 22nd season, the Sharks have a very respectable all-time record of 791-706, plus ties and overtime points. They are about to reach the playoffs for the tenth straight season and the 14th time in their last 15 campaigns. Yet despite consistently strong rosters, the franchise has never reached the Stanley Cup finals. But maybe this really is San Jose's year.
Let's say for a moment that we're wearing teal-colored glasses. Sure we've fallen for this before, but here are six reasons why these Sharks might be for real:
HOME COOKING: The Shark Tank has really been a brutal place for visitors this season. That loss to the Panthers notwithstanding, San Jose's mark at home is 25-5-4, the best in the NHL. Should the Sharks hold off Anaheim, win the division, and, if necessary, grab one pivotal playoff game on the road in each series, it won't be easy for another team to topple them on home ice.
THE SCHEDULE: No team logs as many flight miles during the regular season as San Jose, but after a recent trip during which the Sharks swept games in Columbus (against a hot Blue Jackets club) and New York (Islanders, Rangers), they are done visiting Eastern Conference teams. All six of their road games since the Olympic break have been in the East, where they also beat the Flyers and the Devils, but lost to the awful Sabres. San Jose won't see the Eastern time zone again this season unless it reaches the Cup finals. GM Doug Wilson has often talked about how his team's travel eats into its practice time, but the Sharks will have plenty of time to prepare for the playoffs this year. With only 12 games left, they are now in the middle of a three-game homestand, with seven of their last 12 games in the Tank, and their longest remaining road trip being a journey to Calgary and Edmonton (March 24-25).
THE ANTTI-GOALIE: Antti Niemi may be the best netminder in the Rodney Dangerfield "no respect" class. His name always seems to get overlooked in any discussion of the NHL's top stoppers, yet he leads league in wins (34). His career record is an astounding 154-73-32, with 27 shutouts, and he's 32-23 in the playoffs. In 11 postseason games last spring, he had a 1.87 goals-against average -- that's the type of number that can propel a team to a championship. And unlike most of his teammates, he's already survived in a postseason crucible, having won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2010. Ask casual fans about Chicago's title run that season and many will likely have visions of Patrick Kane's Cup-clinching goal in OT against the Flyers while struggling to recall the goalie at the other end of the ice. It was Niemi. He's been there and done that.
STABILITY: In January, at a time when many GMs were looking to the trade market, Wilson made news only for extending the contracts of forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Both stalwart veterans could have become free agents this summer but are now on board for another three years. Asked after the March 5 trade deadline if he was burning up the phones in a frantic attempt to beef up his roster, Wilson replied, "Nah, I was ordering lunch." The message was clear: A month before the stretch drive to the playoffs, San Jose was happy with its roster.
HEALTH: Logan Couture missed 16 games and a possible a berth on the Canadian Olympic team because of a hand injury, but other key Sharks could have been worn out by the Olympic schedule. While Marleau did represent Canada in Sochi, Thornton and defenseman Dan Boyle were snubbed by Canada's GM Steve Yzerman despite their Olympic pedigrees. Not only did they and Couture come out of the break healthy and refreshed, but they might also have emerged with something to prove. Only four San Jose players went to Sochi, a fairly small number considering the team's overall talent. Marleau, Niemi, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Joe Pavelski all came back healthy.
YOUNG GUNS: The Sharks have two impressive kids this season when they weren't sure if they'd have any. Tomas Hertl, 20, was leading all rookies with 15 goals in just 35 games when he went down with a knee injury on Dec. 19. He's skating again, which gives San Jose hope that he'll be back in the lineup come playoff time. His absence created more ice time for winger Matt Nieto, 21, who has filled in admirably, putting up 21 points (in fewer minutes than Hertl was getting and with less time on the top lines). Nieto, a native Californian, plays with some of the Hertl's youthful enthusiasm, if not quite the young Czech's goal scoring flair. Both Hertl and Nieto have valuable NHL experience for the playoffs.
You can call those six things a case-for scenario that overlooks the fact that neither Thornton nor Marleau have ever gotten over the postseason hump. There are people who still recall a seven-game series against the Canadiens in 2004 when Thornton, then a Bruins center, failed to record a point. But, hey, during the first half of his career, Steve Yzerman was considered to be a point producer who couldn't win the big one. Maybe Thornton and Marleau have learned a few lessons.
The Blackhawks (2010, '13), Kings ('12) and Bruins ('11) were on the cusp before they broke through and won the Cup. Anaheim ('07), Carolina ('06), Tampa Bay ('04) and Dallas (1999) managed to put together one great run to take the title. It's fun to dream for snakebitten teams like the Sharks. If you're a fan in San Jose, there are certainly enough reasons to peek between the fingers that are covering your eyes to see if this is finally your year.