In a year the San Jose Sharks were expected to go through their usual early first/second round playoff exit, the Sharks accomplished the unthinkable; they made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history. This was after the absolutely horrendous season that was 2014-15 where the boys in teal missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. Think about it. This was a team that went without a captain that year and signed John Scott. In just a matter of months after the Sharks missed the playoffs, Doug Wilson got to work and turned this team around, for as much flak as he gets.
That said, here are some of the positives and negatives that I take away from this historic 25th anniversary season in the postseason.
They conquered every playoff demon, and made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time ever.
Obviously, this was huge. The Sharks had only made the Western Conference Final three times before this year, and on their fourth try they were able to grind it out for history at SAP Center. They also eliminated a bitter playoff rival in the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, so I definitely felt that helped boost their morale. However, that was just the start. I still regard Game 7 against Nashville has their best team performance of the postseason. That was unreal.
They had speed, and utilized it to their advantage in the first three rounds.
If there’s anything the Sharks did really well in against LA, Nashville, and St. Louis, it’s that they played their game, which was their speed game. I had a conversation with a friend of mine last night about how Pittsburgh won (we’ll get to that later in a bit more detail), and one of the things he said was that it’s not just about the speed of the Penguins, but how they utilized it. I felt that was true as well for the Sharks. The game is played at a fast pace, and if you can’t keep up with the opposition, you’re toast. The Sharks played their game against the Kings. They battled, and won the majority of the puck races. They got physical when they had to and caused a number of key turnovers that lead to goals. Against the Predators, I’m sure travel was a big factor for Nashville, because they just looked mentally out of it and worn out. Of course, that resulted in a number of odd-man-rushes and a few breakaway opportunities for the Sharks. So, I certainly felt they used their speed to their advantage.
They outworked their opponents and focused on the little details.
This kind of goes hand-in-hand with the above. They outworked their opponents. They generated a lot of speed and offense from it. They were quicker to pucks. It’s the same theme over and over again. I do want to emphasize on the second part of that bolded statement. This is something that Bret Hedican loves to talk about being a former NHLer himself and having won a Stanley Cup back in ’06 with the Carolina Hurricanes. It’s those little details and habits that win you multiple games and get you far into a playoff stretch. It’s winning those face-offs. It’s making sure you have good communication. It’s making sure you execute on every pass, make good decisions with the puck, and cash in on those opportunities. The Sharks certainly did a lot of those.
Martin Jones showed he’s more than capable of carrying his team deep into a Cup run.
On Pucknology After Dark, the guys always love to joke about “whether or not trading that first round pick was worth it or not”. Well, ladies and gentlemen, we now have our answer. Holy crap, was Martin Jones good all postseason. Keep in mind. This was a goalie who served a back-up for the Kings when they won their first Cup in 2012. He was unproven then, but I don’t think there’s any doubt about him now. He was just calm, cool, and collected in net. He always maintained his composure. He didn’t get frustrated when the Blues scored the third or fourth goal on him in Game 4, when the Sharks played one of their worst games of the postseason at home. And especially in the Stanley Cup Final, he bailed the Sharks out more times than not. Yeah, you could argue he allowed a few questionable ones, but he is a huge reason this Sharks team got as far as they did.
The big guns stepped up.
There’s no question. Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture, especially, had an outstanding first three rounds. Thornton continued to wrack up the assists, with 16 helpers total, He finished with a total of 18 assists. I believe. Pavelski fired on every shot he could muster, and wound up with a team-leading 13 goals. He finished with 14. Couture had an absolutely historic playoffs, and while I don’t have the number for how many points he had in the first three rounds, he finished with 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists). Of course, how could we forget about Brent Burns? While he didn’t record many goals in the playoffs, he wound up with 17 assists at the end of the postseason.
Depth and role players got it done.
Credit to Doug Wilson for acquiring the pieces he did (we’ll get to a few gripes later). I have to say the most impressive player for me was Joonas Donskoi. While he only recorded 12 points throughout the postseason, He’s shown that he’s a terrific two-way player with a ton of offensive upside. Of course, he now holds the biggest goal in Sharks history on the game-winning goal in overtime against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3. Joel Ward showed that he can be clutch. Heck, let’s not forget that he scored the tying goal that got the Sharks to overtime in Game 3. Tierney also showed his offensive prowess against Nashville as well as his two-way ability. Another player I do want to point out is Melker Karlsson. Yeah, he struggled for much of the regular season, but he scored a few critical goals throughout the playoffs, such as in Game 5 against the Penguins on a terrific backhand feed by Couture.
The Dillon-Polak pairing was atrocious.
I mean, need I say more? This pairing was responsible for probably more turnovers and defensive breakdowns than any of the other players were, except maybe Paul Martin. But Brenden Dillon had made some questionable decisions with the puck. And Roman Polak, I get that he was brought for more grit on defense, but holy mother of the Hockey Gods. Can he be any worse than he’d been defensively? I say the Polak experiment is over. Maybe trade Dillon too, or get him a much better defensively-capable partner in the offseason.
They were dominated by Pittsburgh for the most part.
Pittsburgh was obviously the more dominant team in the Stanley Cup Final. There’s no question about it. They held the advantage in just about every statistical category except hits, because they possessed the puck a lot more. We all know it’s simple math; can’t possess the puck equals can’t score.
They were too selective with their shots.
While the Pittsburgh Penguins were insane in blocking shots, the Sharks still had a few opportunities to shoot it on net. There were two problems with how they handled that. One, they either passed up those rare scoring opportunities, and two, they took too long to get the shot off. With the way the Penguins were blocking shots and being tight defensively and helping Matt Murray out who really didn’t have to do too much work to begin with, the Sharks had to get the shot off right away. They didn’t do that and it cost them.
Power play wasn’t on par.
Kudos to the Penguins’ penalty killing units for figuring out a way to stall the Sharks’ offense on the power play, because a lot of it was either just standing around or being too cute with the passing.
Pavelski missed crucial opportunities to tie the game.
I kind of ranted about this in my postgame for Game 6, but basically he wasn’t himself in the fourth round. Again, I don’t know if he really was healthy or if he was nursing a wrist or arm injury that he wasn’t going to tell us until later. But if he was healthy, boy, again he did not look like the leader we know him to be.
Sharks couldn’t match the Penguins’ speed.
In a lot of ways, I kind of think Pete DeBoer has to take some of the blame for not at least trying to match up with the Penguins’ speed, because they were simply too fast for the Sharks. It lead to countless transitions. There were times when San Jose was getting beat to the puck and so Martin Jones had to come up strong. The Penguins’ speed and, like I touched on earlier in the positives, how they utilized it was certainly a major factor in them ultimately winning the Stanley Cup.
Honestly, it’s hard to be disappointed in this team the way they played in the postseason. I mean, if anything, it showed how hard it is to win a Cup in this League. So, just to get this far was amazing. Again, a lot of us expected the usual either-first-or-second-round exit, but no one could’ve expected this incredible run in the 25th anniversary season. Could it help put butts back in seats? Maybe. One thing’s for sure though. The future is bright for this franchise.