You keep waiting for the real San Jose Sharks to stand up and be accounted for.
Then you start to wonder, after back-to-back losses to Anaheim and Los Angeles this week, whether these are the real Sharks, whether the window is closing on a team that’s been a contender for years and has gone to back-to-back Western Conference finals after knocking out powerhouse Detroit two straight springs.
The last nine regular-season games will tell the tale, starting with Thursday night’s gigantic matchup with the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
"Very, very important game tonight," Sharks captain Joe Thornton told ESPN.com via phone Thursday morning.
The Sharks are two points back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, but just three points back of the Pacific Division lead, which would net them the third seed in the conference.
But they’re not trending like a team that’s on the verge of making a run. Over the past month, going back to Feb. 16, they’ve won five of 19 games (5-10-4), hardly inspiring stuff.
Even the return of winger Martin Havlat, who has played well, hasn’t been the answer.
"Marty has been playing awesome, but until that point we were missing that top-six forward," said Thornton. "It was tough. But whatever happened, we just lost a little bit of confidence during that stretch."
Then Thornton paused, and added: "It’s weird to put a finger on just one thing."
This isn’t the Sharks team that dominated at times in this league over the past few years.
"We’re not on our toes, you know what I mean? We’re very reactive right now, and that’s not how we usually play," said Thornton. "When you’re playing your best, you’re not thinking, you’re going out and enjoying it. Right now we’re just thinking a little bit too much."
As captain, he’s trying to make sure everybody is getting the message.
"Sure, you try to do whatever you can. As a captain and leader, you try to motivate the guys as much as you can. You try to keep them confident," he said.
After Thursday’s game, the Sharks have two games apiece against Pacific Division rivals Phoenix, Dallas and Los Angeles, plus a game against Colorado -- all teams they’re trying to catch. Plus, a game at Anaheim is sandwiched in there.
"We’ve got nine games left and fate rests in our hands," said Thornton. "And that’s a good thing. We’ve got games against teams in front of us. We just have to play well in these last nine games, and that’s all there is to it."
One single point in the standings might end up telling a very different story for this team. Either they sneak in, turn the page on a horribly disappointing regular season and possibly play giant killer with a fresh start in the playoffs, or they miss out in what would be arguably the NHL’s most surprising disappointment this season.
Which one will it be?
The answer starts to unravel Thursday night against the Bruins.