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We may have underestimated the Sharks’ potential as Stanley Cup contenders

More than the Sharks' 3-0 series lead, it's the way San Jose's entire lineup has performed – and the impending return of a key cog – that has them looking like a serious threat in the West.

It was a good ol’ fashioned whooping. In a pivotal Game 3, San Jose hung an eight-spot on Anaheim, with a four-goal second period leading to a three-goal third frame in which the Sharks refused to take their foot off the Ducks’ throat. Already up 6-1 in the final minutes, San Jose pumped two more power play goals — their third and fourth extra-man tallies of the outing — past Anaheim backup Ryan Miller. 

By the time the contest ended, the Ducks skated away shellshocked and wondering how on earth they’re going to climb out of the worst possible playoff hole. But the reality is that there may be no way to get out from under the 3-0 series deficit against a Sharks team that appears much better than most gave them credit for entering the post-season.

True as it is that one game doesn’t make a series, the 8-1 drubbing the Sharks laid on the Ducks on Monday night was one of the most impressive playoff performances we have seen through the 20-plus games that have been played in the first round. And true as it may be that San Jose didn’t own the possession game or carry the play all night long, what the Sharks did is the same thing they’ve done all series long: make the most of every opportunity while shutting down, frustrating and causing the Ducks to almost entirely implode. And through three games, the way the Sharks have performed is enough to make one wonder if we haven’t vastly underestimated their potential in the Western Conference. 

Start by considering the play between the pipes. Throughout the early part of this series, San Jose netminder Martin Jones has been a no-bones-about-it difference-maker. He opened the series with a brilliant 25-save shutout in which he stayed calm under pressure and held fast despite Anaheim repeatedly getting to quality scoring areas. In Game 2, it was much of the same from Jones, who made 28 saves on 30 shots and stopped everything that came his way to preserve a one-goal lead during the final 12 minutes of the third frame. And Game 3’s performance may have been his finest yet, even if it did come with enough run support that he could have played blindfolded and still earned the win. Jones stared down 46 shots on Monday evening in San Jose. He was beaten once — Rickard Rakell blasted home a power play goal — but refused to allow anything more and completely flummoxed the Ducks’ attackers. And now, though it’s only been three games, Jones’ numbers read like those of a veritable world-beater: he sports a .970 save percentage and 1.00 goals-against average, allowing just three goals on 101 shots.

Given his mediocre regular season performance — he managed a .915 SP at all strengths in 60 games for the Sharks, but had the fifth-worst 5-on-5 SP of the 36 goaltenders to play 1,500 minutes – Jones’ brilliance through the early part of the playoffs comes as a pleasant surprise. That said, we shouldn’t be altogether shocked that Jones has turned his game on at the right time because the post-season has seemed to bring the best out of him. In 2015-16, Jones’ first year with the Sharks and first as a starter, his SP jumped from .918 during the regular season to .923 in the playoffs as San Jose came within two wins of the Stanley Cup. In 2016-17, Jones’ .912 SP in the regular season was a concern entering the post-season, but he basically kept the Sharks alive against the Edmonton Oilers, turning in a .935 SP across six games before San Jose was ousted. And this time around, well, we’ve already noted the improvement. The increase from the regular to post-season has been mammoth.

Jones is only one piece of the puzzle, though, and a goaltender alone can win a game or two, but rare are the examples of those netminders who win a series by their lonesome. One need look no further than a few hours down the road, where Jonathan Quick is posting a .945 SP yet the Kings sit in a three-game hole. What the Sharks have shown beyond goaltending, though, is a depth of offense that wasn’t there in the early part of the season.

An eight-goal outing helps, to be sure, but it doesn’t take away from the fact San Jose has 11 players with at least two points in the series and every single forward that has seen the ice against Anaheim has found the scoresheet at least once. Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski are leading the way with five points apiece. Tomas Hertl, Marcus Sorensen, Joonas Donskoi and Timo Meier are point-per-game players through the first three outings. And trade deadline acquisition Evander Kane is looking like the best deadline pickup of the season. After waiting nearly 600 games to see playoff action up close and personal, Kane has three goals and four points, he’s put 17 shots on goal, has an average ice time of 18:30 per game and he’s been physical, laying six hits in three games. That’s one was to make your presence felt — a playoff player, indeed.

Frighteningly, the Sharks’ offense has true potential to get better as the playoffs roll on. Not because of some intangible reason such as chemistry or what have you, either. No, San Jose’s attack stands to improve given that Joe Thornton — who has skated in pre-game warmups in this series but hasn’t suited up for a contest — is seemingly on the verge of returning. Thornton was scoring at better than three-quarters-of-a-point per game when he fell injured midway through the campaign, and that he could enter the lineup and further bolster the offensive depth is a scary proposition for those who have visions of making it out of the Western Conference.

And there is one final aspect of the Sharks’ performance through the first three games of the post-season that suggests San Jose might have what it takes to make a run of it: poise. 

In a first round that has already seen its fair share of somewhat meaningless rough stuff — from suspendable acts of retribution to costly retaliatory minor penalties — the Sharks haven’t bitten, if you’ll pardon the pun. The Boston Bruins are the only team to take fewer penalties per game through the early part of the first round, and when Monday’s Game 3 got derailed by an unglued Anaheim team, San Jose seemed content to skate away from every fracas. As Anaheim’s leadership group, including captain Ryan Getzlaf (roughing, slashing and a 10-minute misconduct after some heated words with officials), Corey Perry (cross-checking) and Ryan Kesler (slashing) paraded to the box during the final frame, San Jose refused to mix it up knowing full well they’d come out better for it. And better for it they were as the Sharks used the power play to punish the Ducks, scoring four times on the man advantage.

And when you combine the Sharks’ composed attitude with their deep offense, soon-to-return star and outstanding goaltending, they begin to look like a more complete package than they have at any other point in the campaign. So, sure, it’s only been three games, but if San Jose can continue to play as they have against Anaheim, the Sharks might prove to be one of the more serious Stanley Cup contenders.

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