So these San Jose Sharks have done what no other fin-outfitted team has ever done – dispatched a foe in the minimum number of games. Now who can’t feel at least moderately impressed by that?
I mean, they did throw away an entire month of a truncated season, thereby convincing any and all that an overhaul of the entire non-German-speaking members of the front office be fired, keelhauled and set adrift. You know – as an example.
But the German-speaking-member of the front office, majority owner Hasso Plattner, did nothing but watch, the Sharks righted themselves, and controlled if not dominated the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs, sweeping the aging and disrhythmic so-called Canadians (sorry, couldn’t help myself there). They had a friendly first-round matchup, and owned it, the way a good team should.
And that’s the point to remember here. This was an advantageous matchup, the kind six-seeds often get in the current playoff system. A third-place team, no matter its ilk, is more often than not a decent but vulnerable team that dominates a bad division, and claims its place not by merit but by being the least flawed of the five in its group.
This does not diminish the Sharks’ performance, which exposed the Canucks while ennobling themselves. But only three times in the 14 years since the NHL went to this format did the three-seed survive in both conferences, and six of those 12 surviving six-seeds reached the conference final or beyond, most recently New Jersey, which lost to the eighth-seeded but impossibly better than that Los Angeles Kings in the Cup final.
So that establishes San Jose’s bonafides to have controlled the Canucks as much as they did. What comes next is dicier, though, and is for the moment out of their hands. They will play either Chicago, Anaheim, St. Louis or Los Angeles in the next round, though Chicago’s 3-1 lead over Minnesota pretty well makes the Blackhawks the likely destination. And Chicago has all the matchup advantages you could want, save in goal.
And this is where the danger of the early finish to a series can wreck a team. When you win four straight, you tend to think you’ve accomplished something, largely because you have. But again, going back to 1999, 24 teams have swept an opponent, and only 12 advanced beyond the next series. In fairness, two of those 24, Boston and Tampa Bay, met in the Eastern Conference final two years ago, so someone had to go down there.
But Boston swept the Lightning, and then finished off the Canucks in the final after losing the first two games. From the moment of that second win, Vancouver has gone into a full-on playoff plummet, losing 12 of the next 14 and is now on the verge of beginning the full-scale cleanout it needs.
But we digress. San Jose’s sweep doesn’t necessarily help it against either the Blackhawks, the Ducks (if Chicago loses to Minnesota somehow), the Blues or Kings (if Chicago and Anaheim both lose). They have had some decent results with extended rest (this will be a minimum of five days), but three years ago eight days of it and then got swept by the Blackhawks.
Because of rust through rest? No. The Blackhawks of 2010 were a blatantly superior team across the board, and anyone who argues that has a summer job sitting on a garden wall in a rustic village mocking the tourists incoherently – if you know what we mean, and we think you do.
No, series are determined by three things – goaltending, systems and speed. The Sharks are as set as they have ever been in goal with Antti Niemi, but are not as deep as though should be for Chicago or Anaheim (though Raffi Torres’ play has evened the field a bit there).
St. Louis is still a tough out for the Sharks, but has its own issues getting out of its own way at times, causing coach Ken Hitchcock to consider having them skate to Nova Scotia and back on the odd practice day. And Los Angeles has Jonathan Quick and the depth of a Cup winner, though it is the depth of Cup winner one year removed. No team has successfully defended a Cup since 1998 (Detroit), and the days of the indisputable dynasties ended with Edmonton in 1990.
In short, the Sharks are almost surely now in series-stealing mode, playing a team that has comparable goaltending and systems and superior speed. San Jose will have to replace that speed with know-how, and know is harder to come by when that know-how doesn’t include Cup final experience as a unit.
That’s the bad news, if your wardrobe tends to the teal. The good news is, you get to have this conversation because your team achieved in a big way, bigger than it ever has before. In short, you’re in play, and for the next five days, nothing bad can happen to your team.
Unless of course the police get involved.