After losing Game 4 by a 7-1 score, San Jose knocked out the Red Wings on home ice in Game 5 of the second round. (Photo by Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
In a pool of 12 guys, I was assigned about the worst place you could be picking for an NHL playoff pool: No. 8.
Right in the middle.
Too late to pick up Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin and too late to pick the top player from a team (Vancouver) I and everyone else – or so it seemed – wanted to load up on.
It was also too early to benefit from being able to pick twice in a row at No. 12. At least if you’re 10, 11 or 12 you get two picks in short order to build on your first selection.
So when it rolled around to my pick I had abandoned all of my initial plans. Henrik and Daniel Sedin were gone. Crosby, Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeni Malkin were all picked. So I looked at my options and took a deep breath before taking the road everyone had learned not to turn down.
OK boys, I’ll be ‘that guy’ this year. I’ll take Dany Heatley.
In fact, so unwanted were Sharks players that when it came back to my turn again nine picks later I was still able to get Joe Thornton. Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, Dan Boyle and Rob Blake all followed. This team is too good to get knocked out again, right? It’s only a matter of time before they get over the hump…right?
So after Boyle scored an overtime marker into his own net against Colorado that put the Sharks behind 2-1 in their opening round series, you can imagine the immediate regret I had: this team was obviously cursed.
Since then, of course, I’ve been feeling a heck of a lot better about my pool picks. San Jose has won seven of its past eight games and was the first team to secure a berth in the conference final.
“The theme for our team in these playoffs is to overcome and shooting it into your own net in overtime is a situation that, as a group, we decided we weren’t going to let get us down; we were going to overcome it,” said Sharks assistant coach Jay Woodcroft. “We understood what happened was a fluke thing and we were determined to not let a fluke event determine our playoffs.”
Perhaps it’s a fluke the Sharks haven’t represented the West in the Cup final yet. When you’re talking about consistently extraordinary teams that don’t seem to reach the post-season heights they’re destined for, it’s easy to forget just how hard it is to go all the way; only one team out of 30 can win. For a team that’s always in the running, though, odds dictate it’s only a matter of time before the pieces fall into place and they finally come together and push through.
Before the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997, they had won their division six out of the previous nine years, but had whiffed in the playoffs a few times with huge upset losses to the Hawks in ’89 and ’92 and the Sharks in ’94. They were swept in the ’95 Cup final as Presidents’ Trophy winners and ousted by the Avs in the conference final a year later after setting a new NHL record for wins in a season (62). Even after winning the title three times between 1997 and 2002, the Wings were still upset in the first round as the No. 1 seed twice during the next three post-seasons.
But championships tend to make you forget other historical shortfalls and until a team actually does come through there’s an aura of failure surrounding them that can be blinding.
“As a group we were asked constantly about past performances in the organization, but this team that’s put together is this year’s team,” Woodcroft said. “We didn’t worry about what might happen or what could happen, we just worried about our team game and what we were going to do when the playoffs started.”
There are more than a few comparisons you can make to the Sharks and Red Wings. The two have been the best regular season teams in the West over the past 10 years and have suffered some heart-breaking post-season losses. And two of the Sharks coaches (head coach Todd McLellan and Woodcroft) were brought to the team from Detroit fresh off a 2008 Cup championship.
“The Red Wings and the Sharks almost mirror each other,” Woodcroft said. “Both teams have an element of skill that’s towards the upper echelon of the league; both teams are based on a foundation of work ethic and structure; both teams play a disciplined brand of hockey, but are heavy on the puck and go to the hard areas. There’s a burning desire to succeed in both organizations.
“When you’re dealing with Detroit you understand the level of experience they have – their star players will bring it every night. They have experience and they know how to win a playoff series.”
And the Sharks are proving they’ve learned that trick and gained that experience as well.
Where the Wings found themselves as champions 13 years ago after about a decade of disappointment, the Sharks are now hitting that tipping point (they won their first division title in 2002) and seem ripe for a banner raising that would change the perception of the team forever.
And what better timing? A Sharks championship would likely bring an end to my own, much-longer run of post-season futility.
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