by Tom Walker – Special to INSIDE SPORTS
Heading into the 2011 NHL All-Star break, the San Jose Sharks completed the first 50 games of their schedule with a long week off to contemplate the state of their season and to figure out how to turn things around in time for the playoffs. That is, provided they can emerge from a crowded field of Western Conference post-season contenders and make the cut in the first place.
Battling for a playoff spot is something that neither the Sharks nor their fans have had to worry much about in recent years. Over the past decade, the boys in teal have racked up an impressive five division titles, including each of the past three seasons, and they have finished first in the Western Conference standings the past two years, bringing home the Presidents’ Trophy in 2009. But as Sharks fans gaze upward into the HP Pavilion rafters at banners which herald regular season accomplishments, heartbreak lingers over post-season failures. The “Western Conference Regular Season Champions” banners serve only to reinforce the reality that this formidable franchise has yet to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Despite what some might call another premature post-season exit in 2010, off-season line-up changes inspired prognosticators to keep the faith with San Jose. All five of Sports Illustrated’s hockey forecasters picked the Sharks to win the Pacific Division this year, with three of them expecting a first ever appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals for the Sharks. ESPN’s contributors were a little less generous, with the Sharks and Los Angeles Kings splitting their six picks for the division title, and only one picking San Jose to qualify for the finals and hoist the Cup. Canada’s TSN also forecasted a fourth consecutive Pacific Division title. (TSN’s prognosticators selected the Dallas Stars to finish last in the Pacific and 14th in the Conference: bet that one’s posted prominently on a bulletin board at American Airlines Center!)
At this point of the 2009-2010 season, the Sharks record was 32-10-8 (72 points) as they enjoyed an 11-point division lead over the second place Phoenix Coyotes, and were tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for most points atop the Western Conference. And while Chicago kept pace for the rest of the year, the Sharks comfortably distanced themselves from the rest of the pack, entering into the post-season sporting a dominating record of 51-20-11 (113 points), 2nd overall in the NHL.
On the last game before this year’s All-Star break, the Sharks suffered a 3-2 shootout defeat at the hands of the Kings, bringing their record through 50 games to 25-19-6 (56 points), effectively tied with the dismantled-yet-defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks and the Colorado Avalanche for 7th place in the Western Conference. This left them clinging precariously to the last playoff spot in the standings. A 16-point drop with seven fewer victories was not exactly what most hockey experts had in mind for this perennial contender, and there are as many opinions about the reason for the plunge as there are pundits and fans.
Do You Miss Me Now?
Facing a salary cap dilemma last summer, the Sharks were forced to decide between retaining long-time goaltending mainstay Evgeni Nabokov or keeping together other key pieces of their recent success. Quickly ending any speculation about his future, Patrick Marleau avoided free agency altogether, signing a four-year contract extension in June. The services of Devin Setoguchi were retained as well, while a contract extension for Joe Thornton remained the highest priority. Unable to find an NHL contract worthy of his résumé, Nabokov jumped to SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL. The Sharks can be forgiven for believing the addition of the Finnish tandem of Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki would sufficiently offset the loss of Nabokov, their franchise leader in almost every goaltending category. The numbers tell a different story. In his final season with the Sharks, Nabokov posted a 44-16-10 record with a 2.43 GAA and .922 save percentage. At this point in the current season, Niemi has a record of 13-13-3 with a 2.69 GAA and .912 save percentage, while Niittymaki has a record of 12-6-3 with a 2.54 GAA and .901 save percentage. To be fair, Nabokov was doing even worse for SKA Saint Petersburg before begging off of his contract, reportedly for family reasons, and attempting a return to the NHL this season. But Sharks fans’ memories are of the Nabby which made them great over the past decade, and more than a few are thinking of happier days right now.
Of all of the stats which stand out when comparing this season to last, perhaps the most perplexing are the plus/minus numbers of San Jose’s marquee names. Patrick Marleau entered the All-Star break with a team-worst minus-19, despite 18 goals and 18 assists. Scoring leader Joe Thornton is minus-14, along with Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi. Contrast that with last season when Marleau finished the season with a team-leading plus-22 (tied with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, now minus-8) and Thornton finished plus-14. It begs the question: have the elite San Jose forwards lost their two-way game? On the bright side, Sharks fans have been energized by the inspired play of rookie center Logan Couture, who leads all NHL rookies with 22 goals, is 2nd overall for points with 33, and whose plus-14 is highest on San Jose’s roster.
How much does a single point mean these days? A regulation loss to the Kings last week would have meant dropping into a 3-way tie for 9th place with L.A. and the Minnesota Wild, with the 12th place Calgary Flames nipping at the heels just one point further behind. With the exception of the bottom-feeding Edmonton Oilers (15-26-8, 38 points), all remaining 14 teams in the Western Conference are in the playoff hunt in what promises to be a contentious stretch run – a far cry from the Eastern Conference where the bottom is already falling out under several teams who are certain to be sellers as the trading deadline approaches.
Increasingly clear is the fact that simply winning games isn’t going to be good enough to continue playing through April and beyond. Winning in regulation and depriving conference opponents a consolation point is the key for San Jose to turn their season around and make a serious run at the Cup. It may be difficult to overcome the stunning performance of the Dallas Stars and allow San Jose to capture that fourth consecutive division title, but if there’s anything the Sharks and their fans understand all too well, it isn’t so much whether you make the playoff cut, but what happens once you get into the playoffs. The Presidents’ Trophy tends to lose its luster when the eighth seed sends you packing for the summer in the first round.
The NHL’s mid-season pause has come to an end. With two months remaining in the regular season, the Western Conference playoffs are essentially underway. The only safe prediction at this point is that it will be quite a ride. Buckle up, Sharks fans!