Start of series hardly portends the end

Updated: April 23, 2004, 4:35 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- We are about to learn whether the San Jose Sharks are old school, or suffer from the same sort of athletic malaise that makes each game of a series irrelevant.

Patrick Marleau
The Sharks celebrated in Game 1. Who knows what the'll be doing in Game 2.
Irrelevant, that is, to the one before it, and to the one after it.

The Sharks, as we remember from our reading lesson, dope-slapped the Colorado Avalanched in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal, 5-2, and the score was not indicative of the difference in play. It was, in layman's terms, a piano-wiring of the first order.

But the smartest (read: oldest) Sharks all made a point after the game of saying that Colorado would be much better in Saturday's second game. Talent and pride and all the other between-games arglebargle that makes people hit themselves in the foot with a clawhammer rather than hear it again.

Truth is, though, the Sharks in question, Mike Ricci, Vincent Damphousse, Mike Rathje, etc., know their stuff, even if all they did was stumble over a true cliché.

In the last two full playoff years and through the first round of the current one, one team has won the opening game by three goals or more 10 times, ranging from six 3-0 shutouts to St. Louis' 6-0 groin shot of Vancouver.

And six of those 10 teams went on to lose the series, most dramatically Ottawa taking a 3-0 pasting from the Islanders in Game 1 last year then winning the next four games.

This is not a sign of a momentum. This is not even a sign of one team's superiority over another. This is Short Attention Span Theatre Unchained.

The thing is, though, it didn't used to be that way. Of course, nothing ever is, as your great aunt Thelma will tell you after her third shot of Drambuie. Was a time, in fact, when beating a team by three goals in Game 1 was all you needed to know.

The previous six teams to overcome a pimp-beating in the opener needed 11 years and 40 series to do so. In fact, it happened only twice in the 30 series between 1994 and 2001 --- proof that players once knew how to put the boot in, and keep it there.

But we have come to understand that your modern player either believes his coach when told that Game 1 means almost nothing, or forgets between Game 1 and Game 2 how they won Game 1.

This is some serious amnesiac tendency, and either goes to some functional intellectual failing in the modern athlete, or is testimony to the fact that every team is about the same these days.

We mention this because the Sharks did this very thing to the 'Lanche two years ago, in Denver no less, and still ended up losing the series.

There is, though, a fundamental difference. Unlike Thursday's win, that game two years ago featured nothing more complicated than Patrick Roy stinking the joint out for one of the rare times in his career. He let in five goals on 22 shots (the sixth goal was an empty net job, which in some ways did not really separate it from the others).

Roy, of course, was ridiculed for being too old, too slow, too uninvolved, or maybe just not paying attention. The always gentle Denver media corps saw the end of an era, and promptly catered a funeral.

Three days later, Colorado won, 8-2. Roy saved 29 of 31 shots, and was pronounced cured.

That, too, was wrong, because nobody realized the essentially spasmodic nature of the series. San Jose won Game 3, 6-4, and then lost Game 4, 4-1. Then they won Game 5, 5-3, and scored the first goal in Game 6, only to discover that Roy had plenty of Roy left in him. San Jose didn't score again, losing Game 6, 2-1, and Game 7, 1-0.

That was the proof of a case that had hadn't been made in years -- that the games had no causative link to each other, and that nobody understands to this day how the hell that series played out the way it did.

Then again, nobody is quite sure how the Avs took a 3-2 lead in the ensuing series against Detroit and then were outscored 9-0 after that. We suspect everyone just played drunk, but we can't be sure.

All of which brings us back to the now. San Jose gets winger Scott Thornton back, and head coach Ron Wilson, that noted shrinking violet, has basically dared Colorado publicly to try and skate with his boys -- a tactic born of half a truth and half a brain game. Colorado doesn't have to be dared to skate, trust us on this.

How it comes out, though, remains to be seen. Either the Sharks are a very real deal indeed, or they just sold us all wolf tickets -- as is the fashion of the day.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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