Sharks hope to build on momentum
The first thing, perhaps the only thing, you need to know about the San Jose Sharks' series-clinching victory over the St. Louis Blues is that the winning goal was scored by Mark Smith and was set up by Marcel Goc.
Hardly Messier and Gretzky.
The game in question, the fifth of the series, was Goc's first NHL game. Not first playoff game, first game period.
Smith, a native of Edmonton, Alberta, scored his first playoff goal on his first playoff shot.
A 20-year-old native of Calw, West Germany, who played last season for Adler Mannheim, Goc was in the lineup in place of injured Scott Thornton, while Smith, who played in only 36 games for the Sharks this season, scoring once, was in for injured Alyn McCauley.
The other thing you should probably know about the Sharks' decisive handling of the high-profile (not to mention highly paid) Blues, is that everyone in the dressing room knew Goc and Smith.
Players, coaches, management.
These weren't faceless strangers but simply different parts of the same well-oiled Shark machine.
"It's not even something we addressed before the game [how to adjust for the missing regulars]," coach Ron Wilson told ESPN.com while awaiting the team's next opponent, which turned out to be the Colorado Avalanche.
"Our players believe in them. It's fun to watch," added general manager Doug Wilson.
After the game, Wilson called the coaching and management staff in Cleveland, where Goc had spent the entire season with the Sharks' American Hockey League affiliate, telling them they were a big part of the series win.
Both Thornton (leg) and McCauley (shoulder) are skating, and Thornton is almost certain to be in the lineup when the Sharks start the second round of the playoffs Thursday. McCauley is also hopeful of a quick return after missing the last four games of the Blues series.
Many prognosticators picked the Blues to effect the patented first-round upset of the Sharks. Even though they were a seventh seed, the Blues were on a roll, charging into the playoffs in the final days of the regular season and loaded with talent such as Keith Tkachuk, Chris Pronger and Doug Weight, big names absent from the San Jose lineup.
If anyone in the San Jose dressing room took note, it was impossible to tell. The Sharks allowed just nine goals in the series and only one power-play marker on 22 chances. Seventeen San Jose players figured in on goals.
"We finished with the third-most points [in the NHL], that signifies something," coach Wilson suggested.
Still, Wilson is correct in assuming that the anonymous Sharks would be considered an underdog whether they were hosting the Avs or the Vancouver Canucks, who lost Monday's Game 7 vs. the Calgary Flames.
It was the same for Wilson's Washington Capitals in 1998 when they flew under the playoff radar all the way to the team's first and only berth in the final.
There are other similarities.
In Washington, goaltender Olaf Kolzig was trying to establish himself as a No. 1 netminder. Now, the Sharks' Evgeni Nabokov is trying to prove his rookie-of-the-year turn in 2001 was no fluke. Through five games, Nabokov is building on a strong regular season with a .937 save percentage and 1.56 GAA.
And if Wilson and Wilson (not to be confused with the other West Coast Wilson collaboration of "Surfin' USA" fame) are correct, there exists that rare, almost magical quality that all Stanley Cup aspirants possess.
Call it chemistry, call it a sense of purpose or destiny, it seems to be there.
"You don't see it that often," Ron Wilson said. "And you really appreciate it as a coach when you do see it, that buzz, that electricity before a game.
"I think our team senses that we really have a chance to make a long run here."
A year ago, the only thing on the run in Sharkland was the good will of the team's traditionally loyal fans. The team had finished last in the Pacific Division and out of the playoffs. The general manager and coach and virtually all of the team's identifiable stars had been purged. What was left was really anyone's guess.
"The fans, rightfully so, were very frustrated and disappointed," said Doug Wilson, who regularly meets with the fan base in San Jose.
A rocky start to the season seemed to confirm "expert" opinion that the team's rebuilding process would be a slow one. But the team rebounded and finished with 104 points, second in the Western Conference and third in the NHL.
Players such as Scott Hannan (whom Ron Wilson calls one of the most underrated and effective defensemen in the NHL), Patrick Marleau and Mike Rathje -- all of whom had been with the organization but had toiled in the shadows cast by Owen Nolan, Teemu Selanne and Bryan Marchment -- were forced to take on roles and responsibilities unknown to them.
"This is a fresh start and a new era for this organization," Doug Wilson said. "They deserve it. It's their opportunity now. It's their hockey team right now."
That evolution of maturity, of assuming responsibility, of delivering in the crunch, continues even into the playoffs.
"Any given night, anybody can step up," said Marleau, citing the Smith/Goc contributions in Game 5. "It's great having that."
Marleau, the team's leading scorer, managed just one goal in his final 18 regular-season games after linemate and close friend Marco Sturm was lost for the season with a gruesome ankle injury.
"It had a pretty profound impact on everybody," Ron Wilson said. But particularly on Marleau. "They came into the organization together, and they're best friends."
Wilson kept his distance, then told Marleau before the playoffs that the grieving had to end.
"We had a long chat," Wilson said. "I told him the time's up to mourn the absence. Forget about the drought."
In Game 2, Marleau scored the second hat trick in franchise history as the Sharks jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the series with a 3-1 win.
"He immediately went out on the ice and dominated the game," Wilson said. "He's been a lot more vocal than I've ever heard him in the room."
Even though there is greater pressure than ever before, Marleau, the second overall pick in the 1997 draft, said he has been able to keep it in perspective.
"Having the outside pressure, you try and block it out," the Aneroid, Saskatchewan, native said. "You know it's there. But you're really playing for everybody in the dressing room."
"I've always tried to put that pressure on myself, to score goals and stuff," he added.
Luckily for Marleau, with guys like Goc and Smith around, he doesn't always have to deliver.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.