All the pressure is on the Sharks
The expectations that crushed the San Jose Sharks in the last two playoffs have resurfaced this spring, stirring demons that will haunt them until they learn the secret of extending their shelf life past early May.
Much is expected from the Sharks because they have the NHL’s top record, setting franchise standards with 53 wins and 117 points.
Far less is expected of the Ducks, who needed a late push to get into the playoffs and earn a first-round matchup that starts tonight at HP Pavilion.
The Sharks, who changed all but the core of their roster after they blew second-round series leads over Edmonton in 2006 and Detroit in 2007, have a lot to live up to.
“I think everybody knows that this team needs to take the next step,” said defenseman Dan Boyle, one of six players with a collective nine Stanley Cup rings brought in since the last playoff flop.
“Things happen very quickly. You could be right there one year and the next you’re out of the playoffs and you’re in a rebuilding stage, so you’ve got to take advantage of things when you can. This is a pretty good opportunity. It may be the best opportunity that a lot of guys are going to have.”
The Ducks, the league’s second-most penalized team, have a lot to live down.
Their season was marred by inconsistent goaltending, spotty scoring and sloppy defense. Buoyed by several trades that made them younger and better balanced on defense, they rallied and moved up from 12th.
Their turnaround was admirable. But tonight’s expected starting goaltender, Jonas Hiller, has never appeared in an NHL playoff game. Nor have two of their top six defensemen, Sheldon Brookbank and James Wisniewski.
“I don’t think people outside our room expect too much of us,” defenseman Ryan Whitney said Wednesday.
“We know we’ve played real well the past 15 games and we’ve been in the playoffs since a month ago, it seems. So we expect to continue to play the way we have been and play a good overall game. We expect a good game out of each other and we really don’t mind what other people think.”
The Sharks said they’re ignoring what others say about them even though most of it is favorable -- and deserved. The Sharks have the league’s third-best team goals against average (2.39), third-best power play, fifth-best penalty killing, a mobile defense, paralyzing speed and lots of toughness.
“We did what we wanted by gaining home-ice throughout the playoffs and our expectations are still to win the Cup,” defenseman Rob Blake said. “Anything short of that isn’t good enough. I don’t mind having that expectation or pressure because of the group we have assembled.”
Still, it’s fair to wonder how a team that lost only five games at the Shark Tank in regulation time will hold up if things go sour at some point.
Not to worry, said Todd McLellan, the former Detroit assistant who replaced Ron Wilson as the Sharks’ coach in June. He insisted his team had handled pressure all along, overcoming two injuries to goalie Evgeni Nabokov and, at one stage, losing eight other injured regulars.
“I think there’s a misnomer out there that we put our equipment on and we just won 53 games and didn’t have any stress or any adversity to fight through,” he said. “We had some adversity right off the bat, coming together. We were a new group, we wanted to play a different way, and as coaches there was some stress there right away. Were the players going to accept it?
“We got through that hurdle, we played pretty well, then our game got a little bit stale and we lost some games and we needed to be snapped into shape again. And then came the injury period. . . . So we have gone through our share of adversity and I really believe that’s going to help us down the stretch.”
It will have to.
Center Joe Thornton, who carries the heaviest burden of unrealized playoff expectations, said the team’s playoff hopes are modest.
“To win the first game. That’s all they are right now,” he said. “And then after that, if we win we’ll try to win the second game.”
Then 14 more after that.
“We have a good team and we all know that,” he said. “If people pick us to win the Cup, great. If they don’t, great. We know what the expectations are here and we like our team. We like everybody being healthy.”
Will they be strong mentally if they lose Game 1 and have two days to think about it before Game 2, Sunday at HP Pavilion? That could open the door for doubts to return and really test them.
“You said it. Not me,” Ducks winger Teemu Selanne said, laughing. “Good answer. I like that.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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