The San Jose Sharks are arguably the best team in the NHL this season (sorry Boston fans). But is this a team that is playoff ready?
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Before all the Sharks fans send me hate mail let me just quickly say that I am a Sharks fan too. Pittsburgh has always been my team, but since moving to California 10 years ago I have adopted the Sharks as well.
Now on to the facts.
FACT: San Jose has lost only two games in regulation at home this season.
FACT: San Jose is second in the NHL in both Goals for and Goals against per game.
FACT: The Sharks have run away with the Pacific Division, building a 22-point lead over Anaheim.
But while all of this is great the truth is that this team has not proven that it can play solid, consistant hockey against the league's best teams when facing adversity. Ryan Garner has pointed to a win over Detroit (6-5 on Jan. 17) and the ability to fight through a string of injuries as reason to believe the Sharks can handle adversity.
Yes they have played through the injuries, but the Sharks have not had to play with both of their top two defenseman out of the lineup at any point this season.
Rob Blake only missed two games with his broken jaw (props to Garner for his line about the jaw being more out of place than a Sharks fan at a Chris Pronger fan club meeting). Had he been forced to stay out any longer the Sharks still would have had enough time to make adjustments thanks to the All-Star break.
Okay, Nabby being injured was a huge blow. But unlike the Penguins who had to rely on the unrelibale Dany Sabourin and rookie John Curry, the Sharks had a seasoned starter sitting as a backup. Brian Boucher is still easily among one of the top 30-35 goaltenders in the NHL, and with Nabby out he was given a chance to prove it while playing behind one of the best defenses in the league.
Yes Torrey Mitchell has been out all season, and the Sharks would certainly love to have his speed back in the lineup. But the truth is that Mitchell has been out since the second day of training camp. The Sharks had more than enough time to adjust to playing without him.
I can't pretend losing Jeremy Roenick and Brad Lukowich did not hurt. In fact these may be the biggest injuries to the Sharks lineup. JR is a gritty veteran that can hit as hard as he can shoot. Lukowich's injury may have gone unnoticed, except for the soft play of Derek Joslin.
What has kept this team together has been the play of Dan Boyle - now out with a sore wrist - the return of Claude Lemieux and the emergence of Alexander Semenov as a solid player both on defense and as a forward.
But when faced with in-game adversity the Sharks have rarely proven themselves to be completely playoff ready. Against Calgary on Jan. 15 the Sharks lost Rob Blake in the first period. From that point on the Sharks were out played by the faster Flames, especially in the third period. San Jose never got a chance to pull Nabby and get the extra attacker working because of the constant pressure by Calgary.
Two nights later the Sharks faced Detroit. The Sharks played well all game long, but again were outplayed in the third period. Yes the boys in teal outscored the Big Red Machine 2-1, but Detroit kept up the pressure all period long and outshot the Sharks 11-7. I've even heard Marleau's goal be questioned as a possible offside's play (didn't see it, couldn't tell you), which if it had been called would mean a completely different outcome one way or the other. Maybe Detroit still trails 5-4 going into the final minutes and they don't score. Maybe they tie the game up earlier and go into overtime, maybe they win, maybe they don't.
We'll never know what would've happened if anything had not gone right for San Jose, but what we can look at is the fact that the Sharks managed to survive thanks to the great play of Nabokov.
Coming off that huge win against Detroit the Sharks should've had no problem winning against a Vancouver team that has struggled all month long. Instead they found themselves unable to score against a team that was struggling to find an identity, let alone a playoff spot. The truest test of the Sharks ability to overcome adversity came from a team that might not even make the playoffs. It's great that San Jose was able to come away with a huge OT win against the Canucks, but imagine if that had been Detroit or Calgary or Chicago.
I won't deny that the Sharks are arguably the best team in the NHL, but they need to get over the Ron Wilson hangover and play good hockey all the time, not just one or two games a week. The teams that win in the playoffs do so because they play consistant hockey all game long night and night out.
There will be no Ottawas, Atlantas or Colorados mixed in between games against Detroit or Calgary. No chances to take a night off and still get away with a win. Todd McClellan has the Sharks playing great hockey, but they need to find a way to do it consistantly or this team will not make it past the second round. Again...
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