Hard to believe a team with the most wins since the All-Star break could possibly go under the radar, but that's just the feeling you get with the sizzling San Jose Sharks as the NHL playoffs approach.
Maybe it's because Vancouver's regular season has just been that sensational, not to mention it is doing it in a Canadian market. Maybe it's because Detroit yet again is in the mix. Maybe it's because the Sharks are always in contention and people have taken it for granted. Maybe, despite a Western Conference finals berth last spring, some people still see them as playoff underachievers (Scott Burnside, I'm talking to you).
Whatever the reason, you just don't hear that many people talking about the Sharks' Stanley Cup chances. Perhaps all the better for San Jose.
"It's kind of nice to just slide in there," Sharks winger Ryane Clowe told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "You hear a lot about Detroit, obviously, and Vancouver is having such a good year. We had a slow start this year. We've come on strong of late and maybe that's a good thing. The way we've been playing here in the second half, we're peaking at the right time."
The Sharks are in Anaheim on Wednesday night. The Ducks need points to clinch a playoff berth, while San Jose is battling Detroit for the second seed in the West. Clowe wasn't sure if he'd be in the lineup after leaving Monday's 6-1 win over Los Angeles in the first period.
"I'm doing OK. Lower body. It's day to day, we'll know more Wednesday," said Clowe, who's having a terrific season with 24 goals.
He is one of six 20-goal scorers on the Sharks, an example of the offensive balance they have on display. Patrick Marleau (37), Logan Couture (31), Dany Heatley (25) Devin Setoguchi (22) and Joe Thornton (20) complete the group, the only team in the West with that many 20-goal scorers.
Other fun facts:
• The Sharks have gone 26-4-4 since ending a season-long six-game losing streak in mid-January.
• San Jose captured the most competitive division in the NHL, as all five Pacific Division teams were still in playoff contention as the final week of the regular season began.
Above all that, however, I see the Sharks with the deepest forward group to date. Take Monday night's game against the Kings. Thornton centered Marleau and Setoguchi; Logan Couture was once again between Clowe and Heatley; and Pavelski centered a third line between Kyle Wellwood and Torrey Mitchell.
Once a team tries to figure out how to match up with the Thornton and Couture lines, who's left to check Pavelski? He opened the scoring Monday night and that third line has been buzzing of late.
"It feels like every line is going every night. That's exciting," Clowe said. "I think that's why we feel confident come the playoffs because we can mix and match, and I think we're tough to match up against right now."
Clowe has been partnered with Calder Trophy candidate Couture most of the season, and while most people will point to the rookie center's offensive stats, Clowe marveled at his linemate's defensive play.
"Usually, young guys coming into the league, it takes them a while to develop their game away from the puck, but that's something Logan has had right away," Clowe said. "He's always around the puck, he's always in good position. I love playing with him. I can't say enough about him. I expect big things from him in the playoffs."
In goal, Antti Niemi has been a rock in the second half.
"He's been a horse," Clowe said. "He's probably the hardest-working goaltender I've ever been around. Every practice, he's diving head-first trying to stop shots. He hates to be scored on. He battles hard. In games, he always seems to make the saves you need. We're happy he's here for at least another four years, and good for him, he deserves it."
Behind the bench is Todd McLellan, who deserves more Jack Adams Award consideration than he's getting. No question Dan Bylsma (Pittsburgh), Dave Tippett (Phoenix), Guy Boucher (Tampa Bay) and Barry Trotz (Nashville) deserve the league-wide praise they're receiving, but I also think McLellan has been overlooked. He kept his composure during the team's six-game losing streak in January and has pressed all the right buttons in turning around the ship.
"Todd's been tremendous since joining our organization three years ago," Sharks GM Doug Wilson told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "The coaching staff's work this season has just been outstanding."
Is this finally their year?
"I feel like last year was definitely a good step," Clowe said. "We knocked off Detroit and obviously we got swept by Chicago [in the West finals], but we felt like we made good strides. It didn't feel like previous years, which felt like a complete meltdown. We felt positive about coming into this season."