When the San Jose Sharks woke up the morning of Jan. 14 they were floating in unchartered waters. Recognized as the poster team for regular season success, San Jose was more whale shark than tiger shark at the season’s mid-point, winning fewer than half their games and languishing in 12th place in the Western Conference. The team had posted at least 95 points in eight of the previous nine seasons, so this kind of standing was completely out of character.
Looking at the schedule at that time it appeared as though the road to recovery was going to be made more difficult by a turbulent, road-heavy February. It didn’t play out that way. The Sharks won four of their last five January games and reeled off 11 wins in 13 games the following month to place them firmly back in a favorable post-season position.
“The coaching staff feels the big cause of the turnaround is just the attention to detail on behalf of the players,” said Sharks assistant coach Jay Woodcroft. “Full credit to the players on the team for buying in, sticking to the game plan and being mentally and physically prepared for each game.”
Unlike the Washington Capitals, who took a similarly surprising turn south early in the season, the Sharks haven’t made any great changes to their plan or attack pattern. The veterans started taking it upon themselves to make sure everybody was ready to go each night and GM Doug Wilson had a little intervention of his own prior to the winning streak, one that was backed up by coach Todd McLellan.
“Doug came in and addressed the team,” Woodcroft said. “Everybody knows he believes in the group. Todd spoke and echoed the same thing and that it was time to start putting our nose to the grind stone and play the way we knew we could. I wish I could bottle the formula for you, but more than anything it’s just these guys as a group got together and said ‘OK, we’re going to apply the game plan, respect the game plan and do it on a consistent basis.’ ”
And consistency has been the name of the game for the Sharks ever since as the players have stepped up. Prior to Jan. 15, when the wins started pouring in, goalie Antti Niemi stood with a very mediocre 2.85 GAA and .907 SP, but has since been brilliant, earning three of his five shutouts and improving his numbers to the point where he’s ranked top 15 in each major category. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and last week’s NHL first star, Joe Pavelski, have all come through in a big way, along with a number of other roster players.
“One of the guys who flies under the radar is Marc-Edouard Vlasic,” Woodcroft said. “He’s a premiere shutdown defender in the league. You don’t always notice his contribution in terms of goals, assists, shots on net or big, physical bodychecks, but he consistently shuts the best players on the other team down.”
Of course, adding lesser-lights Ben Eager and Kyle Wellwood Jan. 18, just as the streak started, provided more depth to the Sharks, who now feel they have three lines that can score with a fourth energy line of veterans that is also fully capable and responsible enough to kill penalties.
Another factor in the team’s turnaround? Well, the fathers of the players and coaches would argue they played an integral role in the improved fortunes as their annual trip with the team commenced Jan. 15, which coincided with the start of the streak.
“They’re taking credit for turning the ship around,” Woodcroft laughed. “A couple of them lobbied for staying on – mine included.”
Now with less than 10 games to go in the season, the Sharks are in familiar territory again, sitting atop the Pacific Division, third place in the Western Conference with 92 points. A recent 6-3 loss in Chicago may be a cause for concern to some, but the fact the team bounced back the next night with a 6-3 win in Dallas speaks volumes to how it has been responding to disappointing efforts.
Everything seems to be finally clicking in the Shark Tank and that’s bad news for the rest of the NHL. Hungry for that elusive Stanley Cup, San Jose made its first appearance in the Western final since 2004 last season and it can already smell blood in the water now.
“Coming down the stretch we want to pay attention to the details in our game to make sure we’re continuing to create and develop and nurture good habits; we don’t want to see any bad habits creep into our team game,” Woodcroft said. “So far the guys have been excellent. They see the light at the end of the tunnel here in terms of the regular season coming to an end.”
Now, who’s going to step up and pick the Sharks to win it this year?
LIFE OF BRIAN
My men’s league team had a game this past Sunday morning. Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke must play at the same arena around the same time, because twice this year my brother has walked passed Burke heading into the arena.
But this past weekend was different. You see, my brother is a big Boston Bruins fan and the Maple Leafs had, of course, defeated Boston 5-2 the night before. So here comes my brother into the arena, sporting his black and gold Bruins cap, walking next to one of our teammates. Sure enough, he ran into Burke again.
“Look at the dummy wearing the Bruins cap,” our teammate said to Burke as they crossed paths.
“Yep, he is a dummy,” Burke replied.
Well, Kyle, perhaps there is some truth to what I’ve been preaching all these years?
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com’s web editor. His blog appears Tuesdays only on THN.com.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.