Sharks have playoff bite, now they just have to get in
The San Jose Sharks' climb back has been long and arduous, even after the benevolent Boston Bruins provided a huge shove of help from behind on Nov. 30. Only 8-12-4 at the time of the deal that brought Joe Thornton to San Jose, the Sharks finally seemed poised not only to secure a playoff spot but to be a bona fide threat to come out of the Western Conference.
Actually, maybe it's something in the California water supply. The Sharks join the Mighty Ducks as the fast-closing West teams who fall under that time-honored heading: Teams You Want To Avoid In The First Round. Although San Jose still could miss the playoffs with missteps down the stretch, it also could end up as high as fifth in the conference playoff seeding.
"Really, we've been playing the last, I want to say, 30 games with desperation," Thornton said Wednesday night after the Sharks beat Colorado. "When we hit the playoffs, we're going to be used to every game meaning so much. We're right there in the close games, and we feel comfortable with one-goal games."
Thornton has traded maneuvering around the never-ending Big Dig, having access to the North End and being the scapegoat for a franchise that never seems to run out of excuses; for being the centerpiece of a Sharks renaissance that is restoring the high-decibel passion for the sport in the Silicon Valley.
"It's almost been like two seasons within one season for us," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. "It was how we started and how we've been since the trade. It was almost a clean slate for everybody. Obviously, when Joe came in, he made everybody better, because that's what great players do."
Thornton is a legitimate second choice to Jaromir Jagr in the Hart Trophy race, but this hasn't been anything close to being all Thornton's doing. This was an underachieving team that probably would have gotten going -- to a lesser degree -- even without the deal that brought in Thornton for Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau.
But what it did was provide a jump start, then both production and leadership as part of a nice mix. Since the deal, the Sharks have had winning streaks of six, five and four (twice) games, but it has been more about steadiness and simply playing up to their capability as one of the best teams in their conference.
"I know everybody's names now," said Thornton, obviously kidding. "No, I'm more comfortable with this team now and with the pace of the game out here in the West."
San Jose coach Ron Wilson noted Wednesday night that "Wayne Thomas [the Sharks' assistant general manager] said to me today, 'Have you ever seen Joe have a bad day yet?' That doesn't irritate me, but it irritates some people who are of that ironfisted and intense school. You lose a game, and within 20 minutes, he's done talking about it and he's moving on to the next game. If he has a bad game, he doesn't let it bother him.
"He got kicked out of that game in Boston [in the first period, on Jan. 10], and went back in the room. That's a big game for someone like him. I expected that he would have half-destroyed the room, but he's sitting back there, encouraging the guys with, 'Come on, let's go,' 'No problem, you guys are gonna do it,' 'You don't need me.' He wasn't angry at all, and that's something we might have needed, actually."
The Sharks won that game in Boston, 6-2.
Stuart is missed, but the Sharks have a nice corps of defensemen, including underappreciated Scott Hannan. They're in even better shape now after the signing of University of Denver standout Matt Carle, the Alaska native who Friday was named the winner of the Hobey Baker Award as U.S. college hockey's top player. (In a classy gesture, the Sharks, who don't play again until Sunday, went along with him going to Milwaukee for the announcement, part of the Frozen Four festivities.) Carle has jumped right into the lineup and played with a self-assurance that belies the fact that he was on campus only a couple of weeks ago.
The Sharks have benefited from goalie Vesa Toskala's recovery from his groin injury, and even the acquisition of well-traveled Finn Ville Nieminen from the Rangers at the deadline has helped. That gave Toskala a pal on the roster (he and Nieminen have been friends since they were kids) and gave the team a big boost on the penalty-killing unit.
"We've been getting great goaltending, and that's the one thing in the last couple of years that's been obvious," Thornton said. "If you have a hot goaltender, you can go completely through to the finals. We feel very confident with our goaltending, and we have depth everywhere."
Indeed, San Jose has what has become increasingly rare in the New NHL -- the pick-your-poison combination of elite centers and two dangerous lines. Thornton, playing with Nils Ekman and Jonathan Cheechoo (threatening to crack the 50-goal barrier), has helped make Patrick Marleau better, as well. Marleau has been centering Milan Michalek and Steve Bernier. Bernier has made significant contributions since coming up from Cleveland, but, perhaps even more striking, he has made the kind of eye-popping plays that stamp him as a future star.
"We've been slow and steady and just kept going," Ron Wilson said. "We've never really wavered from that. Once Joe got on board, we saw that our team was much better.
"I think we're a pretty dangerous team right now. We have two centers who can score and we have two right wings who can score, and that's a pretty big advantage to have. We were shaping up with our defense, and that's a young group that has played well. And we're getting good goaltending."
The Sharks' other strength -- well, if you exclude Scott Parker's over-the-top rage against Nashville on March 11 -- is their discipline. San Jose has the third-lowest number of penalty minutes in the league, and it has a knack of leaving the opposition grousing after games that the calls weren't "even." But at this stage, it comes down to smarts and discipline. The teams that haven't adapted to the more stringent standards deserve both to be penalized -- on several levels -- and to trade their helmets for dunce caps. The big test will come in the playoffs, but Wilson's stance is that the test applies to everyone.
"The way the hockey's been, and you add the playoff intensity, I think this could be one of the best playoffs of all time," Wilson said. "If you look at the stats, they haven't backed off."
(The eyeball test, though, is that the referees indeed have backed off slightly. But Wilson is on a roll, so we won't interrupt him. For long.)
"Every other year, you would think the players would have learned to play by now and that the penalties would have dropped," he said. "They haven't. The number of power plays for our team is exactly the same this month as they were in the first month of the season. That has not changed one iota. I've been told by [officiating chief] Stephen Walkom that it isn't going to change.
"They're going to have to do some lobbying with some other officials whose natural tendencies are to be, 'We don't want to decide it.' My theory is that by deciding not to decide, you can decide it. Why do we allow cheating? Why is that encouraged in our sport? Whether it's goalies' equipment or curved sticks, you're encouraged to cheat because you're also told that you shouldn't challenge somebody's stick or someone's pad because that's a cheap way to do things.
"By not calling penalties, you have anarchy on the ice and road rage takes over."
The issue is whether the Sharks are going to be part of a postseason test of the new standards and rules.
At this point, that seems likely.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
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