The Sharks enter another April looking like champs. Will they exit as chum once again?
This story appears in the April 20 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Q: What do the San Jose Sharks and the Titanic have in common?
A: They both look good until they hit the ice. [Harsh? Try this one.]
Q: What do you call 30 millionaires watching the Stanley Cup Finals on TV?
A: The Sharks!
Hold the applause -- these comedic gems aren't ours. They are but a sampling of the wit posted on message boards by Sharks fans who are tired of San Jose's beast-in-the-regular-season, belly-up-in-the-postseason play.
Too harsh again? Hardly. In November 2005, GM Doug Wilson traded for Bruins center Joe Thornton, who notched 125 points and won the Hart. In the playoffs? The Sharks lost in the second round to the eighth-seeded Oilers. In 2006-07, they posted a franchise-best 51– 26– 5 record … and lost again (to Detroit) in the second round. Last season, they picked up coveted blueliner Brian Campbell in late February, won the Pacific -- then lost to the Stars in you-know-what round.
So you can understand why San Jose fans -- who've packed the Shark Tank to near capacity for all 15 of the team's NHL seasons there -- remain skeptical. Sure, their team has the most points (111) in the NHL, but does it finally have the stuff to get over the hump and into the Finals?
Easier said than done, especially when your boss insists there is no hump to get over. "Every year is a new year," says Wilson, who bristles at any talk of the H-word. But real experts know how debilitating the pressure to overcome repeated failure can be. "When anxiety is too high, performance will suffer," says sports psychologist Michael Fraser of New York City's Behavioral Associates. "Anxiety can be self-imposed or imposed by the media. Athletes have to learn to manage it -- get it to work for them."
GMs too. Wilson knows that repeated exits early in the postseason will soon enough land a man on the unemployment line. Exhibit A: Wilson fired the winningest coach in franchise history -- Ron Wilson (no relation) -- following last year's six-game loss to Dallas. Even successful teams sometimes need a shake-up to get over the, um, obstacles keeping them from the next level.
Not just in hockey, either. In 1990-91, the Bulls and Phil Jackson needed Michael and Scottie to buy into Tex Winter's triangle offense to beat the Pistons in the conference finals after losing to them three springs in a row. The Red Sox parlayed skipper Terry Francona's demeanor, Curt Schilling's arm and the hand of God to get past the Mother of All Humps (and the Yankees) in 2004. So maybe it's no coincidence that San Jose's newfound mojo is the result of a new coach (former Detroit assistant Todd McLellan); a new offensive philosophy (when in doubt, shoot); and a new roster featuring a six-pack of actual, real-life Cup winners (defensemen Dan Boyle, Rob Blake, Brad Lukowich and Kent Huskins; wings Claude Lemieux and Travis Moen).
So far, the changes have served the Sharks well. Thornton (24 goals, 59 assists), who's made a career of making pretty passes off the half wall, has parked his 6'4'', 235-pound self in front of the net for much of this season. The havoc he creates for opposing D-men also creates space and scoring opportunities for himself and his 'mates. Captain Patrick Marleau, a pivot since he was a midget, has a career-high 37 goals playing wing alongside Jumbo Joe. And young forwards Devin Setoguchi (30 goals), Joe Pavelski (23) and Milan Michalek (22) have earned significant roles (and minutes), resulting in a second-in-the-NHL 33.4 shots per game (and a league-low 27.5 shots allowed). Com-bine that shots for/against ratio with McLellan's gospel of puck control and two-way play, and suddenly the ex-assistant is out-Detroiting Detroit, whose game is the gold standard of end-to-end dominance. "I watch the Wings a lot," says Thornton. "They're the NHL's second-best team."
So perhaps Wilson turns frosty at the mention of a hump because he's extra confident that this club has the goods. "When I walk into the dressing room," he says, "I want to be able to look at the players and coaches and say, 'We've got the pieces, now let's line up and play.'" His team has been doing that since Day One: The Sharks started the season 21–3–1 and clinched the Pacific on March 17.
But all of that will be meaningless when the second season starts April 15. Since he was hired last June, McLellan has been inundated with questions about getting past the second round. He insists that handling that outside pressure -- not the round itself -- poses the biggest challenge. "We started the season with a plan," McLellan says. "We prepared all year to play with that external pressure, so when we get to the playoffs there'll be no questions."
No questions. That's what the Sharks like most about McLellan's approach. Last season, they stole too many games with power play goals and clutch goaltending. This season, they've made their own breaks with solid 5-on-5 play; their 1.14 goals for/against ratio is sixth best in the league. "Things are pointed out on the bench or in the room," says Sharks wing Jody Shelley. "Guys know right away what they did right and what they did wrong. If you get breaks but don't know they're breaks -- and then move on like everything's okay -- you are kidding yourself."
And this spring especially, the Sharks don't want to be anybody's punch line.
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