The Year For Sharks?

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Sharks poised for long run

LeBrun By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com
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Whether the Sharks win the Cup remains to be seen, but at the very least I see another solid run such as the one they had a year ago, when San Jose reached the Western Conference finals.

Oh yes, I know Scotty loves to mention how they were swept. Fact is if you actually covered that series you would know just how close those games were. Former Hawks goalie Antti Niemi stole Game 2 and you could argue Game 4, as well.

Now, Niemi is with the Sharks, and that's no small detail. They have a guy in goal with a freshly minted Stanley Cup ring. OK, so he didn't carry the team on his shoulders, and one could argue he was shaky at times in the Cup finals. But in the end, he was solid overall and has removed any doubt he had what it took to backstop a Cup championship team.

Sharks coach Todd McLellan touched on that Sunday during a call with reporters, but one of the silver linings of his team's first-half struggles, especially the six-game losing streak in early January, was the eventual response from the players. They looked in the mirror and realized they needed to bring their commitment to a whole other level. San Jose's sizzling second half speaks for itself.

From shot-blocking to taking a hit to taking abuse in front of the net, this is a team that accepted a new level of sacrifice to win games. I see that continuing in the playoffs.

This is also the deepest team, forward-wise, I can remember in San Jose.

Joe Pavelski enters the playoffs centering the third line. He is the same player who scored a bagful of clutch goals last spring and looked terrific on the big stage for Team USA at the 2010 Olympics. Now, he's three-deep on this team with Joe Thornton and Logan Couture down the middle. And sometimes McLellan can put Patrick Marleau back at center and move Thornton or Couture on the wing. That tremendous flexibility and depth make San Jose a matchup nightmare for opposing teams.

And finally, wouldn't it just be the way, after all these years of people picking the Sharks to win only to fail, San Jose would figure it out when most people had given up on them? Of course, some of us still picked the Sharks to win it all this past September.

Haven't we seen this before?

Burnside By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com
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The San Jose Sharks surge into the playoffs as one of the top teams in the NHL.

Gee, where have we heard that before? Pretty much every year since the lockout.

And yes, no team is as adept at putting up huge regular-season points. The Sharks have managed to collect at least 100 points in five straight seasons and have followed those stellar regular seasons by consistently declining to take their game to the next level, the level on which championships reside.

Last season, the Sharks did reach the Western Conference finals, and apologists such as my good friend Pierre LeBrun will point out that while they got swept by the eventual Cup champs from Chicago, it was close. Really close. Sometimes they will tell you the series was really, really, really close despite the basic fact the Sharks failed to win a single game.

And here is what leads me to suggest that once again, at some point along the way, the Sharks will come up short.

In 2007, when the Detroit Red Wings came up short in a desperate bid to tie the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, there was no satisfaction there, no sense of a job well done. There was nothing but disappointment. The next season, the Wings returned with a vengeance and won the Cup. (It's worth noting the Wings knocked off San Jose in the second round, as the Sharks couldn't protect a late lead in Game 4 and allowed Detroit to tie the series at two. San Jose never won another game.)

So, you say maybe this year the Sharks will build on last season's run and take that final step? Goalie Antti Niemi has proven to be a brilliant acquisition by GM Doug Wilson, more than filling the regular-season gap created by Evgeni Nabokov's departure. And Niemi did win a Cup with Chicago last season, even if he was just OK in the Cup final against Philadelphia.

But until we see Niemi prove he can do the job in teal, we remain skeptical. Until we see youngsters such as Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Devin Setoguchi prove they have the leadership qualities to take the Sharks where Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have not, well, we'll be content to wait to see just where the Sharks jump the tank once again.