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
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
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
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
You can see the Sharks' newfound resolve in the way the second line, the one anchored by
McLellan, a former understudy to Detroit coach
"I think the pressure on some of the individuals on our team is no different than on the group as a whole," McLellan told
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
Still, it was thought at the beginning of this series that it would be decided by goaltending and whether upstart
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
"There have been questions," coach
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
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
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.