Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Can this Sharks team win the Stanley Cup?

Well its playoff time in the NHL again. A two month odyssey of endurance and resolve to crown the Stanley Cup Champion. Once again the Sharks are finishing yet another solid regular season campaign. Actually, barring a complete collapse, the Sharks will win the President's Trophy as the top team in the NHL in the regular season. What this does is ensure home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. And what an advantage it has been for the Sharks at HP Pavilion this season. They have a team record 33 victories on the sloppy ice in San Jose. Also, after tonight they have an impressive 117 points with 2 games to play.
First year head coach, Todd McLellan has done a wonderful job this season. The Sharks scorched the NHL in the first half of the season tying the record for most points in the first 25 games with 43. Blue line newcomers, Dan Boyle, Rob Blake, and Brad Lukowich all have Stanley Cup victories on the resume and all three have gotten healthy of late.
All teams have injury problems at this time of year, and the Sharks are no different. They managed to get through the first half of the year relatively unscathed, but after the All Star break, their fortunes changed. Currently sidelined are Captian, Patrick Marleau, Ryane Clowe, and they have been without 3rd line center, Torrey Mitchell all season. Mike Grier and Claude Lemiuex returned tonight after lengthy layoffs. Jeremy Roenick, Jonathan Cheechoo and Marcel Goc all recently returned from injury. With Clowe and Marleau scheduled to return in time for the post season, it would appear this team is getting healthy just at the right time.
The Sharks have some major hurdles to clear if they are going to have the type of post season the fans, the organization and basically the entire hockey world have expected for several seasons now. They have bowed out in the 6th game of the second round for 3 straight seasons. Twice they have been eliminated by lower seeds (Oilers in '06 and Stars in '08). Then there was the catastrophic collapse against the Red Wings in 2007 that Ron Wilson never forgave Patrick Marleau for. The Sharks led that series 2-1 and had dominated to that point. Game 4 in San Jose saw the Sharks leading 2-0 late in the 2nd period. The Wings scored in the final minute of the 2nd period to close to 2-1. With under a minute left in regulation the Wings had Hasek pulled for an extra attacker. The Sharks had possession of the puck and Marleau appeared to pursue an empty net goal at the expense of his defensive responsibility. The Wings forced a turnover, Robert Lang beat Nabokov to tie as the Sharks were out of position on the play. Mathieu Schneider then won it in OT and the Wings ran the Sharks out from there 4-2. Ron Wilson thought Marleau's aggressive pursuit of the empty net cost them the game. The relationship between the two never recovered.
Three years of post season failures and a rift between captain and coach forced Doug Wilson choose between them. It seemed easier to replace Wilson who's prickly demeanor had not endeared himself to many in the organization. Doug Wilson hitched his wagon to Marleau, knowing that despite the post season failures, this team was ready to turn the corner. Bring in McLellan and revamp the "D" and that brings us to this season.

So can the Sharks win the Stanley Cup? The first key is the severity of Marleau's injury. Soft tissue damage can be a very serious situation. Had Marleau stayed healthy, he would have scored 40 goals this year. McLellan recognized he could get the most out of his Captain pairing him with Joe Thornton. Add young sniper, Devin Setoguchi and you had the most potent line in the NHL for the first half of the season. Now with Marleau's health in question, the lines have been shuffled and the scoring has been very hard to come by. Patty and Ryane Clowe are critical to the Sharks survival in the playoffs. Their size, toughness and willingness to go to the front of the net is the key because that is where most playoff goals come from. The Sharks are 4-1 in their last 5 while only scoring 9 goals in that span. Great goalkeeping by Nabby and a good start by Boucher on Sunday made that possible.
Which brings us to the next key: Evgeni Nabokov. In playoff years past, he has had some brilliant performances and some not so memorable. His career post season stats, 59 appearances, 2.17 goals against and a .917 save percentage are very solid. In the 4 OT game against the Stars last season he made a save on Brad Richards that even in defeat is remembered as a brilliant moment in his career. And speaking of last season, Nabby was at the top of his game going into the post season and was ROBBED out of the Vezina trophy. This year, he has the wins and his play of late has been solid. If the Sharks are to have any measure of success, it will be because Nabby played not just good, but great. The McLellan offense takes more chances than Ron Wilson's and thus leaving Nabby vulnerable at times. It seems Nabby relishes this responsibility and his game has certainly elevated in the 2nd half of the year.
So can the Sharks finally make it past the 6th game of the 2nd round? Well that will depend on how the first round goes. You have to get through that first round in 4 or 5 games max and not let the injuries pile up. Last year, going 7 against the Flames wore down the Sharks and Dallas ate them up in round 2. If they draw the Predators or the Blues, they will have an easier time than if they draw the Ducks (See home and home teams split over the weekend, with both winning on the others home ice). Bottom line, Anahiem would be a bad eight seed to run across. They have been one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch.
Always a key component to the Sharks success is playmaker Joe Thornton. Jumbo has done a decent job of shedding the playoff choke artist moniker, but lets face hit, he still has to prove his place in the game with a dominant post season. If Joe plays like Joe can and controls the game, that takes the pressure off in so many other areas.
Yes many feel this is the Sharks best chance ever to win a Stanley Cup. But as soon as the clock strikes midnight next Sunday and the regular season ends, all those points disappear and all the Sharks have left is home ice throughout the playoffs. Yes that is a big deal and a game seven vs. the Red Wings or the Flames in San Jose is much more likely to have a happy ending than a game at the Saddledome or the Sharks personal house of horrors, Joe Louis Arena.

They have done the job to this point. The mix of youthful exuberance and veteran leadership and a battle tested goalie put the Sharks in a prime position to have a deep run. I believe the short answer is "yes" this team can win the Stanley Cup. They have the right pieces. But they still have a TON to prove in the playoffs and should they get down early, then we will see what they have learned the past 4 years. The Red Wings have a brilliant group of forwards,but depth on defense and goaltending are a major concern. The Flames have been a little hot and cold down the stretch but are dangerous as can be. The Blackhawks are back in the post season and with those young forwards, a nice defensive group and a goalie in Khabibulin that has won a cup before, they could cause some teams fits. I'm not even going to break down the East, as the Sharks don't need to be looking any further than game 1, round 1. All the goalies in the West have the potential to steal a series so there will be no sure things. The Sharks need to play with desperation and resolve and trust in their abilities. They can do it, but I feel a lot of things will have to go very right for that to happen. If that happens, then the Sharks will have a banner worth raising in the Shark Tank and Teal Mania will sweep the Bay Area!

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