Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It really shouldn't be surprising when a No. 1 seed emerges as a favorite for the Stanley Cup, but in the case of the 2010 San Jose Sharks, it has caught some of us doubters a little bit off guard.
But, here we are in the conference semifinal round of the playoffs and San Jose is up three games to none on the Detroit Red Wings, the two-time defending Western Conference champions and winners of the Stanley Cup two years ago.
Since reaching the conference finals as a second seed in 2004, the Sharks have averaged nearly 109 points per season, only to bow out in the second round or earlier in each of those years.
San Jose is just one game away from finally getting back to the conference finals and, with the way they've played against the Red Wings, the Sharks now have to be considered serious contenders to win it all.
Even though the Sharks are the top seed in the West, many folks, including yours truly, picked the Red Wings to win this series. Detroit, after all, has pretty much been the antithesis of playoff-collapsing San Jose, winning four of the last 12 Stanley Cup titles.
The Red Wings have players we've grown accustomed to trusting in the postseason, superstars like Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom, etc. Meanwhile, San Jose has players like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov that have all been derided for being playoff no-shows in the past.
Evgeni Nabokov is 7-2 with a 2.14 goals-against average and .920 save percentage this year in the post season.
At first, this postseason seemed to begin the way last year's ended for San Jose, with the Sharks getting outplayed by an inferior opponent. The Sharks hit rock-bottom in 2009, when they were also No. 1 heading into the playoffs before losing in six games to eighth-seeded Anaheim in the opening round.
This year, San Jose lost Game 1 to Colorado and was down 2-1 in the series after Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle handed the eighth-seeded Avalanche a 1-0 overtime victory in Game 3. Boyle scored the game's only goal, unfortunately he beat his own goaltender, backhanding the puck past Nabokov while trying to send the disc off the end boards.
But, just when it seemed like Sharks fans would have to wait another year for a deep playoff run, something clicked in the San Jose locker room. Since Boyle's blunder, the Sharks have rattled off six straight wins by ending the series against Colorado and taking the surprising 3-0 lead over the Red Wings.
Perhaps the clearest sign that San Jose is for real came in Tuesday's victory over the Red Wings. The Sharks trailed 3-1 heading into the third period, but instead of resting on their 2-0 series' lead, San Jose scored twice in the final 20 minutes of regulation and then won the game on Marleau's tally just over seven minutes into overtime.
It was the first career playoff OT winner for Marleau, who was stripped of his captaincy after his club's embarrassing first-round exit last spring. Marleau, along with his linemates Thornton and Dany Heatley are just starting to heat up after the top line struggled to a sub-par performance in Round 1.
The top line's slow start to the postseason didn't hurt San Jose that much thanks to the play of winger Joe Pavelski, who entering Wednesday's action is tops in the NHL with nine goals and second only to Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby with 15 points. If Marleau, Heatley and Thornton can keep moving in the right direction and Pavelski stays hot, that makes the Sharks an even scarier opponent.
Possibly the biggest difference from last year to 2010 has to be Nabokov's improved play in net. The Russian is 7-2 with a 2.14 goals-against average and .920 save percentage this year. He was just 2-4 with a 2.82 GAA and .890 save percentage in the ill-fated series against the Ducks last year.
Now, all that is left for San Jose to do in Round 2 is to avoid matching the biggest collapse in NHL postseason history. In order to reach the conference finals for the fourth straight year, Detroit will have to become just the third team in league annals to win a series after trailing three games to none. The last time it happened was in 1975, when the New York Islanders charged back to defeat Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals.
Of course, if that happens, the Sharks will be right back where they started this postseason, as the poster children for playoff choking.
But, that was the old San Jose and this year's edition has exorcised its playoff demons. And the rest of the league has been put on notice.