SAN JOSE, Calif. – Throughout the San Jose Sharks’ outstanding regular season, rookie coach Todd McLellan always insisted the results didn’t matter as much as the process.
Even while the Sharks racked up the best record in franchise history, he mostly praised their steady growth and consistent effort, not the growing number of victories.
Trouble is, the Sharks’ six outstanding months have counted for absolutely nothing in the first few days of the NHL playoffs.
With just two goals and a boatload of missed chances in two tight games, the Presidents’ Trophy winners are already down 0-2 to the playoff-tested, results-oriented Anaheim Ducks.
The top-seeded Sharks’ effort and growth are still fine, McLellan now says – but the results had better catch up in the next two games, or this delightful season will be another disaster for this playoff-poor franchise.
“You can play good and play close all you want, but we’re not in the process part (of the season),” McLellan said Monday. “We’re in the winning part.”
San Jose has struggled with that part of the playoff equation for four years now. Three straight second-round losses led to coach Ron Wilson’s firing and McLellan’s arrival from the Detroit Red Wings, who were last season’s champions – but also the last No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 8, when Edmonton pulled the upset in 2006.
Yet even after two close defeats in the Shark Tank, where they lost just five times in regulation all season, McLellan still believes San Jose is playing well enough to eventually rewarded. His quietly positive attitude echoed through the Sharks’ dressing room Monday.
“I sense disappointment, but not doubt,” McLellan said. “We’re not changing the way we play. We’ve proven the way we play is the right way. The execution has to improve. … We’re playing well, but they’re playing well. We’re one goal behind in both games, with – in my opinion – more chances.”
McLellan acknowledges it’s time to get something out of those chances – to put some of those opportunities past Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller, who has been phenomenal in his first two NHL playoff games. The Sharks have a gaping 79-43 advantage in shots during the first two games, but their 0-for-12 power play is just the most obvious symptom of a team-wide shooting slump.
“We’ve got to trust our game and know what to do when the pressure comes,” centre Joe Pavelski said. “If we keep working and putting another 45 shots on net, something good is going to happen.”
Aside from their power play, the Sharks’ biggest flaw seems to be creating traffic in front of the net to prevent Hiller from getting clean looks at the puck. Ryane Clowe’s goal in Game 2, which ended a 174-minute playoff scoreless streak for the Sharks, resulted from a shot through traffic, but Anaheim’s defensive determination has kept Hiller’s sightlines mostly clean.
“I think the whole team is doing a great job right now boxing guys out,” Hiller said. “I see the puck pretty well, especially against a team like San Jose who always has a lot of guys in front of the net.”
The Ducks made the one-hour flight home after Game 2, enjoying the benefits of a relatively short post-season commute in a conference that sometimes requires trips to Nashville or Detroit from the West Coast.
Anaheim had divergent feelings after its outstanding playoff start. Centre Ryan Getzlaf said the Ducks “never thought we’d go into their building and manage to steal a couple,” but defenceman Chris Pronger disagreed while summing up the reasons for their wins.
“I don’t think we’re surprised,” Pronger said. “I think we match up pretty well with San Jose, and on the other side, they’re probably saying the same thing. We were fortunate to get some breaks and get some leads. Jonas has been great, and our specialty teams have been good.”
Seven No. 8 seeds since 1994 have won first-round NHL playoff series, and the Ducks are no average eighth seed. Anaheim still has the veteran core of the club that won the Stanley Cup in 2007, but its indifferent play midway through this regular season nearly kept the Ducks out of the playoffs until their strong finish.
The Sharks realize another loss would all but seal their biggest post-season collapse, but they still claim to believe their superior process finally will yield results – even if it’s down to its last few chances.
“There’s no panic,” Pavelski said. “I’ve been on enough teams that have gone into something like this, and you can come out of it just as easy.”