SAN JOSE, Calif. - There's a different feeling this year heading into the post-season for the San Jose Sharks.
The tag of favourite that has been an albatross in the past is in Vancouver instead after the Canucks raced through the regular season and won the Presidents' Trophy.
The questions about early round collapses that haunted San Jose in recent years have been quieted by last season's run to the Western Conference final.
Instead, the second-seeded Sharks are enjoying being out of the spotlight as they prepare for their first-round series against the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Kings that begins Thursday night.
"It's kind of nice," forward Ryane Clowe said. "We feel like we made progress last year. We took a step forward, now it's a chance to make another stride this year. We feel really good about our team."
The Sharks began their playoff preparation Monday with some positive news when Clowe took the ice for the first time since being sidelined a week ago with a lower-body injury. Clowe played only briefly April 4 against the Kings and then missed the final three games with an injury whose origin was a mystery even to him.
Clowe said the time off helped him heal and that he was encouraged by how good he felt at practice Monday.
"I'm not trying to be a hero and rush it or anything. I just want to try to keep getting better every day," he said. "I went four or five days without skating. This was the first time I skated in about a week. But the legs felt pretty good."
While Clowe and the team were always confident he'd be able to play when the post-season started, it was a positive sign that he felt so good on the ice three days before the series against the Kings starts.
With his big body and relentless work ethic, Clowe has been an integral part of the Sharks' success this season. He is a locker room leader who is never afraid to speak up when things aren't going well, earning him a role as alternate captain.
He also helps in more tangible ways as evidenced by his 24 goals, 38 assists and 100 penalty minutes—many the result of coming to the defence of his teammates.
"Clowe is the first to hold himself accountable in front of his teammates," coach Todd McLellan said. "He accepts responsibility for his game and then from there it spreads throughout the room. It's very powerful. When he gets on the ice, his size, strength and toughness are very well documented. He has the ability to play in a finesse way too. He's a very good passer and protects the puck very well. In a year like this when scoring is at a premium, he found a way to put up points."
Clowe spent much of the second half of the season on a line with rookie Logan Couture and Dany Heatley, giving the Sharks another high-scoring line to follow the top group of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi.
That scoring depth is always crucial come the playoffs.
"He's a big part of this team, been a big part all year," Marleau said. "He's a nice piece of the puzzle coming back."
The Sharks were knocked out in the second round for three straight seasons before their most memorable post-season failure in 2009, when they lost to Anaheim in the first round after posting the NHL's best record in the regular season.
Those defeats loomed large at the start of last post-season, but the Sharks overcame a few tough breaks to win their first round series against Colorado in six games and then beat longtime nemesis Detroit in five games in the second round.
San Jose was then swept by eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago in the conference final but the players are hoping to build on last season's success this spring.
"You want to get back there," Thornton said. "We realize we have a good team and we realize how much work it is to get to that point. But it's not the ultimate goal. We know how much you have to go through. We're just that much more experienced and we're even hungrier now to get to that point."
The injury news for the Kings is more of a mixed bag. Leading scorer Anze Kopitar is sidelined with torn ligaments in his severely sprained right ankle. But right wing Justin Williams was cleared to return to practice this week after missing the final nine games of the regular season with a dislocated right shoulder.
The Sharks are expecting Williams to suit up Thursday but know the Kings are a different team without Kopitar, who had 25 goals and 48 assists this season.
"That's probably like asking us the question how much differentare we without Joe Thornton," McLellan said. "He's a dominant player in the National Hockey League. But when you lose a player like that, others tend to pick up the slack."
Notes: The Sharks recalled LW Brandon Mashinter, LW Jamie McGinn, C Andrew Desjardins and G Thomas Greiss. Greiss, the backup last season to Evgeni Nabokov, spent the year in Sweden but was needed as a third goaltender for when starter Antti Niemi does not practice.