By Stu Hackel
Most people habitually remain cautious about the San Jose Sharks' Stanley Cup chances, and not without reason. This franchise has the reputation of producing very good -- and sometimes great -- regular season teams that can't get it done in the playoffs.
Once again, there are reasons why Sharks fans are starting to feel encouraged. When we wrote our first-half retrospective, one commenter charged that we had an East Coast bias by neglecting the Sharks in our discussion of the league's best teams. So let's take a deeper look and see how excited we should get.
First, the Sharks, who have made the playoffs in 12 of the last 13 seasons, have topped 100 points in six of the last seven (they had 99 in 2005-06 ) and won the Presidents' Trophy in 2008-09. That season, they got knocked out in the second round. The last two years, they made it to the Western Conference Championship. They've never been to a Cup final.
There's something curious about this season's edition. The Sharks have improved defensively over last year; their 2.31 goals-against per game average ranks fourth league-wide compared to 2.45 last season. Their offensive numbers have dipped a bit, but not dramatically: 2.81 goals per game compared to 2.96 last season. But scoring is down slightly everywhere this season compared to last: 5.46 total goals per game as opposed to 5.55, which means that the Sharks haven't slipped terribly in that department. Until now, they've survived the hamstring injury to Martin Havlat, who is gone perhaps until March, and the trades of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota. Those two players totaled 46 goals and 105 points for San Jose last season.
Their coach, Todd McLellan -- who is one of the league's better bench bosses -- was selected to run one of the benches at the upcoming All-Star Game in Ottawa because the Sharks had the Western Conference's best winning percentage (.658) as of Jan. 9, although five teams had higher point totals.
San Jose's record a week later still looks pretty good. Although the Sharks dipped to .580 by going 2-1-1 last week, they're currently leading the Pacific Division, so they're seeded third in the West. In real numbers, their point total ranks seventh because they've played fewer games, only 42, than anyone else in the conference. Many of the teams around them in the standings have played 45 or more. The Sharks are on pace for a finish that would put them in the top three of the conference.
Statistically, it's not a bad picture at all, right? But watching two of their four games in the last seven days provided some reservations. The Sharks played two uninspired periods in Minnesota last Tuesday when they had a good spurt near the end of regulation to tie a game they had been trailing 4-2. They lost in overtime. It was a point that even their coach thought they were fortunate to get.
On Sunday against the Blackhawks, the Sharks again played well only in spurts, striking for two quick goals early in the second period to tie the game. They couldn't build on that and fell victim to turnovers. ("I don't know if the puck had a Blackhawk logo on it and we thought we had to give it back to them," McLellan said, "but we certainly did for at least the first half of the game.") The Sharks were short by a goal at game's end.
While it's tempting to say the Sharks don't put a full 60 minutes together, those two games are really too small a sample size to negate their entire record. Any two games in a season can be misleading. Like almost every team, they've had their hot and cold streaks this season -- a November-December run of two wins in nine games followed by a 10-1-2 tear before Sunday.
But digging a little deeper into their W's and L's revealed this: the Sharks haven't done well against good opposition in their own conference or against the better Eastern teams. While they've beaten up on the weaker clubs in the West, their record facing the seven conference foes that, as of Tuesday, would qualify for the playoffs, is only 7-7-4. That's well below their winning percentage. Two of those wins were against the Red Wings while Detroit was struggling earlier in the season. The Sharks might not be so fortunate against them now. San Jose also lost twice to the Wild when Minnesota was hot early, but couldn't knock off the reeling Wild in their third meeting last Tuesday.
And while the Sharks' non-conference victories included two points taken from the champion Bruins, that game was in October, in the midst of the B's awful 3-7-0 start. That game played today might well have a different outcome. The Sharks also beat the Penguins at a time when Pittsburgh was on roll, but they did lose to the Rangers and Panthers, two of the better Eastern teams. San Jose beat up on some of the lesser Eastern clubs -- Devils, Islanders, Canadiens, Lightning, Capitals and Jets -- all of whom are scrambling for one of the last playoff spots.
So while this is a good Sharks team -- maybe even a very good Sharks team -- and it beat many of the opponents it should beat, it's not so dominant against stronger competitor. And when you get into the later rounds of the playoffs, you're facing stronger foes. This club just doesn't seem like an elite one.
Can the Sharks join the Blues, Blackhawks, Red Wings and Canucks, the West's top squads? It will help if they can get Havlat back from his injury and, perhaps through trade, add some depth to their offense. They also need an upgrade in their penalty killing, which currently ranks near the bottom of the NHL. That's hardly a fatal flaw, considering that the Blackhawks' PK isn't very strong, either. Of course, the Hawks have the second-most potent offense in the league, after Boston, so they can compensate for this weakness a bit better than the Sharks.
Every year, the Sharks have great expectations, ones they have yet to fulfill. "We do not apologize for having really high expectations, and that's the beauty of our coach, who came from Detroit and who expects success every year," GM Doug Wilson said on the NHL's satellite radio channel last week. "That's just the way it should be. We want players that welcome the opportunity to go out and play against the best. We've made the playoffs every year but have not been satisfied that we have not climbed that mountain completely."
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