So, here's the big question as San Jose emerges by the skin of its teeth after a surprisingly difficult seven-game set with the Calgary Flames. Is this a team that is gaining momentum heading into the second round, or a team that is again struggling to find the right playoff gear? The Sharks ended their marathon against Calgary with a 5-3 win, but should it really have gotten to that point?
One thing is for certain -- the Dallas Stars should provide an even more difficult challenge than the Flames. The Stars should be brimming with confidence after dispatching Anaheim, the defending Stanley Cup champ, in six games. The Stars weren't given much of a chance to advance, in large part because of their recent history as playoff fade artists. Yet Marty Turco was terrific early and solid as the series went on.
The Stars will give the Sharks all they can handle given their superb depth down the middle. Deadline acquisition Brad Richards enjoyed a strong series against Anaheim and nicely complemented top offensive threat Mike Ribeiro and veteran Mike Modano. The Stars also showed they don't mind the physical play.
1. Tigers or pussycats? Veteran Jeremy Roenick went from the press box to the score sheet to push the Sharks over the hump in Game 7, but San Jose displayed an alarming lack of killer instinct against Calgary. There was the debacle in Game 3, when the Sharks blew an early 3-0 lead with backup Curtis Joseph in the Calgary net and lost 4-3. They did bounce back to steal Game 4 after trailing 2-1 late in the third period, but couldn't close out the Flames in Calgary with a strangely dispassionate performance in Game 6. If they can't do better than that against Dallas, the Sharks will reinforce their leaguewide reputation as chokers.
2. The kids on the blue line. One of the reasons many believed the Stars wouldn't go far this postseason was the preponderance of young, untested blueliners. With Sergei Zubov not yet ready for action after hernia surgery on the eve of the playoffs and Philippe Boucher able to play in only three games, the pressure fell on Mark Fistric, Matt Niskanen and Nicklas Grossman. Trevor Daley played like a grizzled veteran and Stephane Robidas (six points) looked more like Scott Niedermayer than Scott Niedermayer did in the first round. But the youngsters' poise helped pave the way for the Stars to reach the second round for the first time since 2003. Their confidence against a Sharks team that boasts more depth and talent up front will be tested again.
3. Jumbo Joe. It's become almost a caricature, the annual wondering about Joe Thornton's ability to lead in the postseason. The questions dogged the former No. 1 draft pick all his days in Boston. Thornton had seven points in the first round, but until the Sharks can advance to at least a conference final, those questions will linger. No one questions the big man's talent, but at this stage of his career, he'll have to show more to stop the questions from being asked.
4. Home, sweet home -- finally. The Sharks established themselves as a dominant road team during the regular season, but puzzled fans with their often mediocre play at the Shark Tank. That puzzlement didn't lessen when the Sharks lost Game 1 against Calgary on home ice. But they did rebound to win three in a row in San Jose, including Tuesday's 5-3 clincher. Meanwhile, the Stars' recent history at American Airlines Center hasn't been all that rosy, either; although, they did shake some of that home-ice rust in the first round by winning twice in three tries. The Stars also managed to win the first two games of their series against Anaheim at the Duck Pond, so it will be interesting to see if home ice really has any value.
5. Coaching questions. Both coaches, Dallas' Dave Tippett and San Jose's Ron Wilson, entered the postseason with the proverbial sword of unemployment hanging over their collective heads. Wilson's Sharks have been knocked out in the second round in both post-lockout playoff seasons. In both cases, they blew series leads in doing so. When the Sharks started slowly this regular season, Wilson was rumored to be on the coaching hot seat, but the Sharks ramped it up and posted a 20-game unbeaten streak down the stretch. Still, Wilson's job pretty much depends on the Sharks winning this series. Tippett, meanwhile, probably extended his coaching life by ending a string of three straight first-round departures.
• Joe Thornton vs. the Dallas defense: We're expecting Robidas and/or Trevor Daley to likely earn a lot of ice time when Thornton's line is on the ice. Thornton, one of the great puck-possession, playmaking centers in the game, is extremely difficult to knock off the puck. He uses his body position extremely well and has a surprising element of snarl to his game. The challenge is to take away Thornton's space and prevent him from making plays while avoiding taking penalties.
• Sharks: Ryane Clowe led the team with eight points in the first round after missing 67 games during the regular season with a knee injury. Milan Michalek, a 24-goal scorer during the regular season, had zero points through six games.
• Stars: Stu Barnes, who had 12 goals all season, has tallies in two of the past three playoff games, plus an assist. Niklas Hagman (27 goals and eight game winners during the regular season) has zero points in six playoff games.
We picked the San Jose Sharks to win the Stanley Cup in the fall. We also picked them to win it last season. And we know if we take Dallas, the Sharks will win in a romp. So, we say this -- the Sharks finally break through to the Western Conference finals. Sharks in six.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.