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THN.com Blog: Sharks seem prepared for playoff improvement

At 39-22-7, The San Jose Sharks sit third in the Western Conference with 14 games remaining. (Photo by Noah Graham/NHLI via Getty Images)

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At 39-22-7, The San Jose Sharks sit third in the Western Conference with 14 games remaining. (Photo by Noah Graham/NHLI via Getty Images)

Lost in all the early playoff prognostications – which see the high-flying Vancouver Canucks looking like a very strong option to represent the West for the Stanley Cup – is the fact the same ol’ San Jose Sharks squad that always had the big question mark hanging over their collective heads is back and playing well.

Last year was probably the final season in which the hockey media posed the question, “but can they do it this year?” in regards to the Sharks, a team fiendish in the regular season and feline in the playoffs. San Jose did win two rounds in the 2010 post-season, but still fell short of the final. The window (of expectations, at least) seemed closed. If not then, when?

With the start of the 2010-11 campaign, the Sharks uncharacteristically stumbled. In the first two calendar months of the season, San Jose amassed a pedestrian 11-8-4 record, then got smacked by a six-game losing streak in early January. At the time, as other teams in the Pacific Division were excelling, it appeared as though the Sharks would miss the playoffs for the first time since 2002-03.

“The past three years I’ve been here, we’ve always been on top,” said right winger Devin Setoguchi. “This year we started out low.”

But with Antti Niemi gaining even more starts in net once battery mate Antero Niittymaki ran into injury problems in late January, the Sharks began to put it all together. Forwards such as Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe began to put up points in bunches, while Calder candidate Logan Couture continued his strong two-way play, meaning the secondary scoring was back in the Bay Area.

Now the Sharks are on top of the Pacific, in their customary perch. But instead of cruising through the second half of the season – something they’ve often had the luxury of doing in the past – the team has gone through adversity and still must fight off Phoenix for the division title.

So…is this the year the Sharks make a run for the Cup? Adversity does help steel a team for post-season battles. And despite the fact the core of the Sharks remains the same, Setoguchi believes in this group.

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“We have more playoff experience now,” he said. “We have guys who played in a lot of key situations who hadn’t been there before. Experience has a lot to do with playoff hockey.”

The key, of course, is for the Sharks to prove it. They did take a big step in slaying one post-season demon last year when they overcame the Detroit Red Wings – easily every Western team’s nightmare scenario of a playoff matchup, no matter what the seeding – but the next move is to not get swept by the opponent after, as Chicago did to San Jose last year.

If there’s one thing to note about the Sharks, it’s the closeness in the standings and perhaps knowledge that anything can happen once the second season begins has made them a humble bunch; no looking ahead here, no matter how poor the opponent may be in the points department on any given night.

“We always try to be in the best possible position we can,” Setoguchi said. “We don’t worry about which teams are which.”

So perhaps in the year that no one is talking about them, it will be the year the Sharks finally break through. I’d tell myself this is the last time I’ll write a blog on this topic, but you never know – there’s always next year if they fall short again.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays, The Hot List appears Tuesdays and his Rookie Report appears every other Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter on twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.

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