San Jose Sharks left wing Patrick Marleau (12) celebrates his goal against the Los Angeles Kings with teammates Dan Boyle (22), and Logan Couture (39) during the third period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, April 7, 2012 in San Jose, Calif. San Jose won 3-2. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
SAN JOSE, Calif. - For years, the San Jose Sharks have entered the post-season as one of the favourites to win the Stanley Cup, only to fall short somewhere along the line.
That may be why San Jose is embracing its new role as underdog so much heading into the first-round series against the St. Louis Blues.
The Sharks had to scramble just to make the playoffs after an eight-week funk when they lost nearly two-thirds of their games. They recovered to win their final four in the regular season to earn the seventh seed in the Western Conference to set up a first-round matchup against the second-seeded Blues beginning Thursday night at St. Louis.
"We still believe in our team," defenceman Dan Boyle said Monday. "We're very confident in our team. We probably lost a few people media-wise along the way, which we couldn't care less about. Sometimes that's good. Teams come together when they're considered the underdog. Everybody loves a nice story and hopefully we'll have a happy ending."
There's a different feeling heading into this year's playoffs around the Sharks, who have been either the first or second seed in the Western Conference the past four seasons but were unable to translate that success to a Stanley Cup run.
San Jose was upset in the second round by Dallas in 2008, lost in the first round to Anaheim the following year despite posting the best record in the NHL, then lost in the Western Conference final the past two years to Chicago and Vancouver, respectively.
While the outside expectations might have lessened, there's little difference in the locker room, where a team that includes high-powered players like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Boyle and Stanley Cup-winning goalie Antti Niemi still expects to win the title.
"We always have a lot of pressure on us," Thornton said. "It doesn't matter if you're 1 or 8. Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and St. Louis is in our way right now."
The biggest benefit of needing a late-season push instead of coasting into the playoffs in the past is there's no need to restart the engines when the post-season begins. The Sharks have essentially been playing games with playoff 0implications for a few weeks, most notably in home-and-home sweeps against Dallas and Los Angeles over the final eight days of the season.
"There have been times in the past where we cruised into the playoffs, and you're hoping that the players will turn it up and get prepared," coach Todd McLellan said. "We've been doing that for the past month. It can work against you as well. Guys take a big sigh of relief, 'Hey, you know what, we've accomplished something, we're in, we're happy and away we go.' That's one area where that experience can step up. That's not what the goal was."
The Blues were the team sputtering toward the end, losing eight of 12 games to lose out to Vancouver for the top spot in the West.
San Jose finished 13 points behind St. Louis in the standings, the biggest points deficit the Sharks have faced in the playoffs since 2000, when the eighth-seeded Sharks upset top-seeded St. Louis in seven games.
The Sharks had little success against the Blues this season, losing all four contests in regulation and being outscored 11-3. San Jose failed to score a goal in two trips to St. Louis, being shut out by Brian Elliott in December and Jaroslav Halak in February, and failed to score on its last 14 power-play chances against the Blues.
"We're not going to dwell on what we did wrong, but we are going to look at it and correct it and hopefully we can turn those things around," Marleau said.
St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock hasn't announced which goalie will start in Game 1, but with each goalie winning twice in the regular season against San Jose it might not matter much. The Blues allowed 155 goals all season, their fewest ever in an 82-game campaign.
Notes: F Ryane Clowe did not skate at practice after missing the third period of the season finale against Los Angeles on Saturday with an undisclosed injury. D Brent Burns also got a "maintenance day" but McLellan said he expected the entire roster to be healthy for the series opener. ... F Torrey Mitchell was back on the ice after being held out of Saturday's game while recovering from a hard check he took Thursday in Los Angeles, and said he had no limitations. ... The Sharks will wear black jerseys at home in the post-season for the second straight year instead of teal. They went 12-2-0 in black and 14-10-3 in teal.
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