Commentary

Mind over matter? How else to explain these Sharks?

Updated: February 1, 2008, 1:44 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Joe Thornton brought along a toque. And gloves. And a scarf. But with the temperature in Calgary hovering in the inhuman area of minus-18 (minus-40 factoring in the wind chill), how on earth does he expect to survive, having purposely left his overcoat back in San Jose?

"Mind," laughed Jumbo Joe, "over matter."

Or maybe, mind over what's-the-matter? As in, what's the matter with Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo?

[+] EnlargeEvgeni Nabokov
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesEvgeni Nabokov has started all but one game this season and has a 2.18 goals-against average.

Either sentiment very nearly describes the San Jose Sharks' recent rise up the Western Conference standings. How many other NHL teams could survive the hit of their second- and third-leading scorers falling off the map and still be fighting for the lead in the ultra-tough Pacific Division, alongside the Dallas Stars and the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks?

The Sharks are circling. They are big, deep and committed defensively, in an aggressive, hard, forechecking way. They own arguably the best two-way player and passer in the game. Only the Detroit Red Wings have posted more road victories.

San Jose just hasn't excelled in the way most analysts figured it would. These Sharks choke the life right out of you.

"You play the style you have to," said coach Ron Wilson, a trace of irritation creeping into his voice. "You do whatever it takes to win. I don't know what you people expected. How many 30-goal scorers do you see in our lineup? Defense is what wins Stanley Cups. The Anaheim Ducks proved that again last year. They won all the 1-0 and 2-1 games in the playoffs."

But Wilson also acknowledged his team has had plenty of secondary scoring from Steve Bernier (13 goals), Joe Pavelski (11) and Jeremy Roenick, rookies Devin Setoguchi and Torrie Mitchell, and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff (nine each).

"Maybe a couple of them haven't produced they way we've anticipated," Wilson said. "But when they start to score again -- and we have every belief that they will -- the confidence the kids have gained along the way can only make us better."

So, what factors have inspired this San Jose revitalization?

1. Evgeni Nabokov might just be the game's top goaltender this season.

2. The Sharks have bought wholeheartedly into Wilson's grinding, pressuring, keep-your-own-end-tidy game plan.

3. No matter how much Marleau and Cheechoo might be struggling, the amazing Thornton invariably is there to bail out the Sharks offensively.

4. A young, no-name, blue-line brigade (four regulars are under the age of 25), thought to be fatally weakened by the loss of stalwart Scott Hannan to the Colorado Avalanche via free agency in the offseason, has been surprisingly durable. Even an injury to Kyle McLaren hasn't slowed them down.

"We've been the opposite of what everybody thought we'd be," Roenick said. "Everybody thought we'd be an offensive juggernaut, but we've turned into a defensive power. To give up 119 goals this late in the season is pretty amazing. Other teams have given up 160, 170-something.

"We think defense first, but not in a negative way. We go after it. We pressure the hell out of teams. We give up only 13 shots to the Oilers, in Edmonton, [against] a very fast team. That says something, a lot about us.

"[Thornton] obviously has scored a lot of points. But after him, we do it by committee. And sometimes, that's the best way."

Given the unflinching commitment in their own end and Nabokov's nifty numbers, it's wild to ponder what the Sharks might be doing had Marleau and Cheechoo not stepped into an open elevator shaft together.

"You never want to go through anything like this," Cheechoo said. "I expect a lot more of myself, obviously. It's a little frustrating, no doubt about it. But when you're having trouble scoring, you try to help in other ways. I think I'm playing better away from the puck than I ever have before. You try to keep your plus-minus up.

"I'm trying to find a groove again. The chances are coming, bunch-loads of them. But I haven't been able to bury anything. It'll come. I know it will."

Captain Marleau, unbelievably, has only nine goals and 26 points through 48 games. Cheechoo, who collected a Maurice Richard Trophy only two seasons ago, has a paltry nine goals and 16 points in 44 contests.

It only underlines the MVP-type campaign Thornton is turning in. Almost 46 percent of San Jose's attack goes through him. He has 66 points, tied for 10th overall in the NHL. The next-highest ranking Shark is Milan Michalek, 91st, with 33 points.

"I know Patrick and Cheech are going to get going," Thornton said. "They've been playing really good lately. Just so long as we win, it doesn't matter who scores. That's how we see it. Those two guys will get going. We've got 30 games to get better. And these guys are going to get better."

Nabokov's importance also cannot be underestimated. He ranks first in wins (28), third in shutouts (six) and fifth in goals-against-average (2.18), and sports a commendable .919 save percentage.

"Nabby's been good," Wilson said. "But overall, we've been good defensively. I think we've given up the second-fewest shots in the league, behind Detroit. So, it's not just Nabby."

As Roenick said, with due deference to the consistent brilliance of Jumbo Joe, the Sharks are a success by committee.

With the offseason addition of Mathieu Schneider and the belated returns of Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne, the Ducks are once again getting a lot of love out West. Detroit has been riding high all season. Outsiders Calgary, Dallas and Vancouver are catching nervous glances from the favorites.

"We're doing pretty well right now," J.R. said with a broad smile, "and there's still plenty of room for improvement."

Underestimate San Jose at your peril. After years of being touted to run the table, this has all the makings of "their time." These Sharks are built to last for the long haul -- the long haul meaning mid-June.

There are teams that just give off Stanley Cup vibes, and this team, in an understated way, is one of them.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.