At first glance, the San Jose Sharks should be consensus favorites to defeat the Colorado Avalanche and advance to the second round of the NHL playoffs.
After all, the Sharks are the top seed in the Western Conference and the Avalanche are the eighth seed. San Jose finished the regular season with 18 more points in the standings than their opponents. They scored 20 more goals than Colorado while allowing 18 fewer and they won the season series against the Avs as well.
But it isn't that simple, not by a long shot. Unlike most teams, the Sharks are facing two opponents in the first round: the scrappy young Avs and the need to overcome the ghosts of their recent playoff failures.
The story is a familiar one to Sharks fans:
2005-06 Regular Season: 99 points. Playoffs: Lost, 2nd round to the Edmonton Oilers
2006-07 Regular Season: 107 points. Playoffs: Lost, 2nd round to the Detroit Red Wings
2007-08 Regular Season: 108 points. Playoffs: Lost, 2nd round to the Dallas Stars
2008-09 Regular Season: 117 points. Playoffs: Lost, 1st round to the Anaheim Ducks
2009-10 Regular Season: 113 points. Playoffs: Begin Wednesday night when the Sharks host Colorado
Even with the addition of the point for overtime and shootout losses, finishing with more than 100 points for four straight seasons is an impressive accomplishment. But every spring, when the weather warms up, the Sharks cool off. Despite their regular season dominance, San Jose has yet to reach even the Western Conference Finals.
No team has had similar regular season success coupled with playoff frustration since the New York Rangers of the early '70s. That team had a lot of talent, led by Hall of Famers like Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Brad Park and goalie Ed Giacomin. For seven consecutive seasons, those Rangers clubs, led by Coach/GM Emile Francis, finished with more than 90 points. Like the modern-day Sharks, they were as deep and talented as any team in the league. They even defeated the defending Stanley Cup champions for three straight seasons in the playoffs from 1972-74, but the Rangers failed to win the Stanley Cup during that era.
"In the early '70s, it was unfortunate the Rangers didn't win the Stanley Cup," explained Hall of Fame Coach Scotty Bowman in the series "Legends of Hockey." "They had some real bad luck...They were one of the better team in the NHL for a three-or-four year span."
The Rangers went 54 years without a Stanley Cup before Mark Messier ended that drought in 1994. While the Sharks haven't been around that long, with each passing year, the pressure to succeed grows and the window for victory grows smaller and smaller.
The Sharks are facing a million questions that recur every year at this time and probably only serve to reinforce the nagging doubt that lingers around the team. Is Joe Thornton really a leader? Can Evgeni Nabokov raise his game to another level for the playoffs or is he just another good regular season goalie who can't come through in the clutch? What's wrong with the Sharks? And on and on...
In a conference call with the media, broadcaster Mike Milbury explained the issues facing the Sharks. "The character question is on the line yet again in San Jose," Milbury said. "I think Thornton and Marleau and Heatley and Nabokov all understand that they need to find a way to dial it up at a time when all the eyes are on them. And they've been close in the past. They've got a pretty good team there. Obviously, they've kind of run through the regular season. But the questions will be answered now. And if they're not answered in a positive fashion, I can't in any way fathom that this team wouldn't be severely altered."
The Sharks have done their best to deflect the pressure. Coach Todd McLellan has tried to take the focus away from his present team. "We keep talking about last year. We keep going back to last year. I've been asked that question a hundred times," McLellan pleaded. "This is a different team. Half the faces in there weren't involved in the playoffs last year with our club. The organization failed last year, the group of players who were here last year didn't succeed. This is a different group. We're moving forward. We're not talking about last year."
Defenseman Rob Blake, one of four Sharks players with Stanley Cup rings (Dan Boyle, Niclas Wallin and Kent Huskins are the others), added, "The franchise itself hasn't done what it needed to do in the playoffs the past couple years. This team, we don't know. We wanted to get in this position, we wanted to be in the playoffs and set that record straight. This is a new team, a new adventure for us coming into the playoffs this year."
The Sharks recent playoff failures are not really behind them. They act as a shadow now, following the team wherever they go. The talk will not end unless the Sharks make a long playoff run this year, one worthy of their recent regular season success. Until then, San Jose will be viewed as front runners or chokers.
Win a Cup, and this team will be together forever. Another early exit and the team will look very different by the time training camp opens in September. The Sharks have the talent to win it all, but in each game throughout the playoffs, they will have to overcome two opponents, one on the ice and the other in their heads.