The mid-April rite of passage in the Bay Area is upon us once again. San Francisco Giants baseball has just begun. The flowers are starting to bloom, causing the influx of hay fever suffers, yours included, to sneeze their heads off for the next two months, and the San Jose Sharks are ready to embark on another trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs with high expectations.
The third part has always ended in disappointment for the Sharkies and their rabid fan base.
San Jose has been among the favorites to raise Lord Stanley’s Cup several times over the past decade, but has instead skated away from the rugged postseason tournament empty handed each time.
From the premature playoff exits to Edmonton, Detroit and most recently Anaheim two years ago in a No. 1 versus No. 8 matchup, the Sharks postseason run always has ended a few weeks too soon.
However, this year is set to have a much different ending.
Despite what still looks like a thin blue line that is heavily reliant on top defenseman Dan Boyle, these Sharks are still as skilled as past teams, but have added a lot more snarl to their game.
The presence of midseason additions Ian White, Ben Eager and Kyle Wellwood were three extra cogs added to a very dangerous group to begin with.
Those players have blended in beautifully with the skilled top six of the Sharks, led by newly minted team captain Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley and rookie scoring star Logan Couture.
The judicious moves to part ways with longtime net minder Evgeni Nabokov in the offseason and to bring in two solid replacements on the cheap was a glowing example of why San Jose has been one of the top teams in the National Hockey League for this long.
New keepers Antero Niitymaki and Antti Niemi were brought in to share the starting role in 2011, but the lead role was soon claimed by 2010 Stanley Cup winner Niemi.
Niemi, along with the Eager, helped the Chicago Blackhawks oust San Jose in four games in the Western Conference Finals a year ago.
While Nabokov folded under the playoff pressure, Niemi shined en route towards the ultimate crown.
With Eager and Niemi now sporting Sharks teal, the San Jose roster now has unique mix of previous cup winners, hungry veterans and rising stars looking to grow their first playoff beard.
Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson said it best during a recent interview, “We added guys with some bite to their game,” Wilson said. “It’s a man’s time of year.”
Instead of grabbing the shiniest new toy on the trade market—trading for Bill Guerin in 2007, Brian Campbell in 2008 and Heatley in 2009—Wilson added role players to his core and watched his team come together as season moved forward.
Failed trades in the past didn’t produce results. This year’s roster moves resemble last summer’s quiet, but useful, maneuvering by the Giants.
The Sharks still have the high-octane, shoot-first mentality on offense, but with a renewed edge on the other end of the rink.
The extra attention on defense started from the top.
Jumbo Joe Thornton did something this year few, if any, thought they’d ever see him do. The left-handed offensive force that scored his 1,000 career point last week in a game against the Phoenix Coyotes, led the league in takeaways in 2010-11. Normally, an offensive force with limited desire to sweat it out on the other end of the rink, the dangerous reach that No. 19 has used to keep the puck away from his opponents all these years has finally proved useful on defense as well.
It would be fitting that in the franchise’s 20th year—the first with Thornton boasting a ‘C’ on his chest—that the Sharks would finally push aside the demons of playoff past and win the Western Conference.
After that hurdle is crossed, all bets are off Sharks fans. As everyone found out rooting for the Giants, sometimes it just takes time.
Stanley Cup Finals Prediction: Boston Bruins 4, San Jose Sharks 3.