When last we saw the San Jose Sharks in the playoffs, the Los Angeles Kings were tossing them over the side of the boat like so much chum. It was a terrible look for the Sharks, losing a series in which they led 3-0–a blow so great it knocked an erstwhile model NHL franchise off its axis for a whole year or so.
Fast forward to today and things are looking a lot different. Now it’s the Kings who are adrift after San Jose sent them packing in five games. And the Sharks? Well, not only are they back and performing in the playoffs, but there’s reason to believe that just maybe, they could be the dark horse team to come out of the Western Conference and make a legitimate Cup run.
It would be easy to dismiss that thought, given the Sharks’ history of under-performing in the postseason. But there are some interesting things about San Jose that, when added together, make them look like a smart bet to make some noise in the next few weeks:
- They have been very good on the road all season. Even the best teams need to be able to take a game or two in the other team’s building during the playoffs; when you’re a lower seed, like the #3 Sharks, winning on the road is imperative if you want to advance.
- Peter DeBoer, while not exactly at the top of most observers’ list of NHL coaches, has taken a team to the Stanley Cup Final before, in 2012 with the New Jersey Devils (coincidentally, his first year at the helm of that club, too). This year’s Sharks’ performance was nearly identical to that Devils team’s results: good points totals (102 for NJ vs. 98 for SJ) that placed them roughly in the middle of the pack and primed for a surprise run to the Final.
- In goaltender Martin Jones, the Sharks have a relatively inexperienced backstop who may be primed for a breakout performance that carries his team deep into the playoffs. That occurance is something of a Pacific Division tradition; Jean-Sebastien Giguere came out of relative obscurity and led the Ducks on a surprise run to the Final in 2003 (and won it with them three years later), while Jonathan Quick–who had been good but not great before then–propelled the third-place Kings to the Cup in 2012. (Jones was Quick’s backup on L.A.’s 2014 championship team.)
- Finally, the Sharks have an interesting collection of seasoned, All-Star caliber veterans–Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Couture, Burns, Vlasic, Martin–to go along with an infusion of rookie talent that might be just the right mix to lift them above their upcoming opponents. In their Game 5 win over the Kings, the Sharks’ first two goals came from youngsters Joonas Donskoi and Chris Tierney, and it was Donskoi’s second goal that proved to be the game-winner.
It’s certainly not a given that the Sharks will go far in these playoffs; they could get swept out by the Ducks or Predators in the next round if everything falls apart. And, as noted above, past failures may make it difficult to have a lot of faith in San Jose. But the contributions they’re getting from the young players make it difficult to dismiss the idea of a deep run out of hand. Who knows? Maybe this time they’ll go far because Donskoi will turn out to be another Claude Lemieux. (Meaning, in terms of Lemieux’s penchant for scoring big playoff goals, not his equally notable penchant for making everyone around the league hate him.) You don’t know who those guys are until they actually do the job on the ultimate stage; and they all start out as rookies sometime, before they step up and become champions.
Whatever happens, at the very least the Sharks have shaken off the ignominy of 2014’s epic fold. The finned franchise can, at the very least, go forward again with some sense of being contenders again.