It was an absolute throttling of the Nashville Predators at SAP Center. The San Jose Sharks had struggled on home ice coming into the postseason, but have finally rediscovered their dominance in Sharks Territory at just the right time with a 5-1 record at home (and a 5-game winning streak). Instead of always asking what the Sharks did wrong like we do every single year, this time I ask the question: what have the Sharks done right this year thus far?
This was something that the Sharks have obviously struggled with in past seasons. Starting in the regular season, it’s always been the inconsistencies that have plagued the team in teal. It was either they were plagued with injuries or they weren’t good enough. In the playoffs, they’ve had their disappointments, specifically and most recently in 2014. That is a key area that the Sharks have seemingly turned around this season. It took a while for them to adjust to Pete DeBoer’s system, obviously, but they got rolling along, and now it seems like they’re believing in themselves and believing in each other, and of course that’s a big reason that they’ve been able to handle adversity so well.
You look at the series against the Los Angeles Kings, whom I originally thought were going to be a real test. Yes, the Kings have pushed the Sharks and showed their offensive prowess. No game is easy in the National Hockey League, especially in the playoffs. But the Sharks battled. I think the first most telling sign of the Sharks starting to turn things around was in Game 5, when they had a 3-0 lead in the first period, and just gave it away in the second period and one more time early in the third. How would they react? Would they continue to be outworked and lose those races to pucks and those puck battles? How much more would Martin Jones have to work? And then it came. The Sharks never panicked. They never gave up, and they just stuck with it, which is how you have to win hockey games. You stick with what’s working. You stick to what wins you games. Before you know it, Joonas Donskoi has a goal. Joe Pavelski chips in with another to make it 5-3, and then the dagger and series-ending empty netter from Melker Karlsson to end it at 6-3. The Kings were done.
Next challenge: the Nashville Predators. This was a team that upset the Anaheim Ducks in seven games. Of course, the Ducks were a lot of peoples’ picks to win the Stanley Cup, and again look what happened. The Sharks had home ice and, as I said earlier, they dominated. They weren’t great at Bridgestone Arena. Heck, the home team in that whole series won (which is why they had to go to seven games, even though the Sharks should have won Game 4, but it’s whatever at this point). The Sharks had put on what probably was their worst effort of the postseason in Game 6, and look what happened. They flat-out dominated the Predators in Game 7 on home ice.
Now, would I like to see the Sharks be better on the road against St. Louis? Definitely, especially since the Blues have home ice in the Western Conference Final. However, this is a team that – as of seeing their performance in Game 7 against the Predators – I can really say I have confidence in to face whatever adversities are bound to come. Like I said, no game in the postseason is easy. It’s why the Stanley Cup Playoffs is the best tournament I’ve ever seen in pro sports. It’s why the Stanley Cup itself is so freakin’ hard to win. That being said, it’s not going to be an easy task, but I have full confidence in these guys to get it done.
Rolling Four Lines
Now, more than ever, teams are relying on depth to get them far into the playoffs. That doesn’t mean that the stars can’t step in. They’re a part of the formula, even if it isn’t scoring goals. Look at Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. I’ve barely ever heard Crosby’s name mentioned on either the telecasts or the network analysts on NHL Tonight. Malkin had that one really good game against the New York Rangers. But the point is, look how far the Penguins have gotten without relying so much on their superstars, upsetting the Washington Capitals in six games.
Going back to the Sharks, Pete DeBoer has this team rolling on four lines as he’s emphasized before. This Sharks team is as deep as I’ve ever seen it down the middle. Yes, Pavelski has come to the forefront because he’s the captain of this team. Yes, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Logan Couture have shown up on the score sheet too. But, it’s guys like Joel Ward, guys like Karlsson, Chris Tierney, and Donskoi whom you’d rely on for that secondary scoring. Those are the guys you’re looking to add to the score sheet, and even if they don’t they have to be effective somehow, whether it’s generating speed offensively or being physical and forcing the other team to turn the puck over. Dainius Zubrus was a great example of that in Game 5 which was another rout against the Predators.
These are the kinds of things that the Sharks’ coaching staff is looking for, and fortunately for the boys in teal, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Million Dollar Question: Have the Sharks Found Another Gear?
So, now begs the question: have the Sharks found another gear? This is a question I thought of after Game 7. Now, pardon me if I’m overblowing this a little, as it’s only been two home games. But if you really think about it, they played a great game in Game 5 and in Game 7 they just obliterated the Predators with their relentless forechecking, so much so that it’s led me to believe that the Sharks may have found an extra gear in them speed wise. It could also very well be that Nashville had all that travel and could have potentially been very tired. Look at the mental factor for the Sharks in past year, especially after the series against Detroit back in 2011. They allowed the Red Wings to force a Game 7, won that by a 3-2 score, and then just ran out of gas against the Vancouver Canucks who beat them in 5.
On the other hand, the Sharks just looked so ready. I mean, I don’t know or have any other words to describe it. They look very mentally and physically prepared for anything that comes their way. Joe Paveski is doing his thing. They’re backchecking hard. That’s the mark of a great team. They never gave up. They’re utilizing their speed up front. If the Sharks have not yet found a new gear, is there more to come for Team Teal? That is a question for you guys to answer.
The Bottom Line…
Bottom line is that the Sharks have been playing great hockey of late. I don’t know if the road woes were just at Bridgestone or they’ve somehow kind of lost their mojo a bit as the away team, but you have to hope that this type of performance continues at Scottrade Center in St. Louis on Sunday. Again, it’s not going to be an easy series by any means. But I have just such full confidence in this team. Disappoints and accolades, I’m ready for it all. St. Louis Blues, bring it the hell on.