After a solid 7-0 start to the season, the Sharks fell down the standings by playing mediocre hockey in February and March, but finished strongly with a 12-5-1 record since March 25.
The team's up-and-down regular season made it difficult to predict how it would perform in the playoffs against an experienced Vancouver Canucks team. But after an impressive first-round sweep of the Northwest Division champions, it's clear that the Sharks have what it takes to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.
To win the Stanley Cup, a team needs its stars to play at a high level, consistently strong goaltending, good special teams and a good performance defensively. Several of these ingredients have been absent from recent Sharks playoff runs, which has resulted in some supremely talented teams falling short of their postseason goals.
This year could be different for San Jose, and there are several reasons why.
The play of starting goaltender Antti Niemi has been exceptional all year, and it wouldn't be surprising if he's among the finalists for the Vezina Trophy when the three nominees are announced on Wednesday. Luckily for the Sharks, Niemi has carried his regular-season form into the playoffs.
In his four starts versus the Canucks, the 29-year-old veteran went 4-0 with a .937 save percentage and a 1.86 GAA. Niemi allowed more than two goals in just one game and he's playing with the poise and confidence he displayed as the starting netminder during the Chicago Blackhawks' championship run in 2009-10.
While Niemi hasn't been the sole reason for the Sharks' failure to win the Western Conference over the last two years, he hasn't performed at the level expected of him. As the chart below shows, his playoff performance in 2013 has been a major improvement from recent years, which is an encouraging sign for San Jose.
Niemi has been the MVP of the Sharks all year, which will give this team a new level of confidence it may not have had in recent years. In addition to his stellar play at even strength, Niemi also played an important part of the Sharks' penalty kill in their series versus the Canucks.
San Jose allowed just two power-play goals in this series, which is a great improvement from last season when the Sharks allowed six power-play goals to the St. Louis Blues in their five-game first-round series loss. The Sharks also converted on seven of their own power-play chances against the Canucks, including three goals with the man advantage in each of their last two games.
In the later rounds when teams are so evenly matched, special teams are often a huge factor in determining the outcome, which is why the Sharks' strength in this area of the game gives them a stronger chance to reach the Cup Final compared to recent seasons.
Another reason why the Sharks finally have what it takes to reach the Cup Final is that their star forwards are performing at a high level. This group includes Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and captain Joe Thornton.
Marleau and Pavelski were awful in last year's playoffs with zero points in five games, but in four games against the Canucks, this duo combined for eight goals and five assists.
As for Couture, he's been one of the best player in the postseason thus far. The young star ranks tied for second in scoring with eight points (three goals, five assists) and he has also performed well defensively by blocking shots, back-checking and playing a physical game.
Without a lot of offensive skill in its bottom-six forward group, San Jose is forced to rely on its top players to score goals for playoff success. If Couture, Thornton, Marleau and Pavelski continue to score at or near the pace they did in the Canucks series, the Sharks will be incredibly tough to beat because they don't allow a lot of goals and excel on special teams.
After you take into account all the skill, special teams success and reliable goaltending that we have seen from the Sharks in the first round, the most impressive part of their playoff run thus far may be the confidence and attitude this team is showing on the ice. They are keeping their composure in late-game situations, protecting leads and giving a full 60-minute effort.
Sharks fans have seen this before from their team in the early rounds, only to be disappointed in the Western Conference Finals when the pressure and expectations are too much for certain players to overcome.
But this year's Sharks team will be a lot more difficult to beat than in years past. It has better goaltending, stronger special teams and a determined group of veterans who understand there won't be many more opportunities for them to win a Stanley Cup together.
We have seen some surprising results in this lockout-shortened season, so it wouldn't be a shock at all if the Sharks finally reached the Stanley Cup Final. This is the best team they have had in the Joe Thornton era.
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