But do you believe?
Do you believe the Sharks can rally from a 3-1 series deficit, win the Western Conference final and advance to their first Stanley Cup final in franchise history? Do you believe they can win three games in a row after losing six of their last eight? Do you believe they can do it with captain Joe Thornton(notes) nursing an apparent shoulder injury? Do you believe they can do it against the Vancouver Canucks, the best team in the NHL in the regular season, a team desperate to make the Cup final for the first time since 1994 and win a championship for the first time in forever?
“Absolutely,” Todd McLellan said. “There’s so many reasons to believe.”
McLellan has to say that. He’s the Sharks’ coach. But heading into Game 5 on Tuesday night, he should have an easier time convincing his players to believe than he might have in the past, though his counterpart, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault, should have an easier time convincing his players to beware, too.
These teams know firsthand that comebacks are possible in today’s NHL. Both blew 3-0 series leads and survived in Game 7s earlier in these playoffs – the Canucks against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, the Sharks against the Detroit Red Wings in the second round.
If that isn’t enough evidence, the Tampa Bay Lightning came back from a 3-1 series deficit and eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. And if that isn’t enough, McLellan came up with another example: In the Western Conference final of the American Hockey League, the Hamilton Bulldogs came back from a 3-0 series deficit to force a Game 7 on Tuesday night against the Houston Aeros, McLellan’s former club.
“It’s the belief the players have,” McLellan said. “It’s the pressure the other team’s dealing with. We’ll go from there.”
Usually in these situations, coaches say that their best players must be their best players. Not this time.
Thornton and Patrick Marleau(notes) have been the Sharks’ best players in this series. Despite all the criticism they have gotten for falling short in the playoffs, Thornton has a goal and five assists against the Canucks, Marleau four goals and an assist. Though Thornton left Game 4 after taking a shoulder-to-shoulder hit from Raffi Torres(notes), McLellan said the media have made too much of the injury and he plans to play Thornton his usual amount in Game 5.
“The lightning rods on our team have actually performed quite well,” McLellan said. “They’ve been very competitive. They’ve done everything we’ve asked of them. There’s a few others that have to step it up, and I’m confident they will.”
Dany Heatley(notes) has been a huge disappointment. He has one assist in this series and has made mistakes, like taking the first of four penalties on which the Canucks capitalized with three 5-on-3 goals in Game 4. He has only three goals and six assists in these playoffs, not nearly enough for the Sharks’ highest-paid player. He looks a step behind, and because he is signed through 2013-14 with a cap hit of $7.5 million, the Sharks seem stuck with him.
“It’s up to us to sit with Dany, work with him a little bit, try to find a way to put him in successful situations,” McLellan said. “Then again, ultimately he has to find a way to do that and produce.”
This goes beyond Heatley, though. The Sharks’ strength has become a weakness. Their depth has let them down.
This is no longer the team of Thornton, Marleau and Heatley. Even if the Sharks are eliminated in Game 5 – which would drop them to 1-8 in conference final games over the past two years, reinforcing their reputation as teases – that will still be true and a reason why this team will need tweaks up front, help on defense and patience in the offseason, not an overhaul. The Sharks are formidable up front with guys like Couture, Ryane Clowe(notes), Joe Pavelski(notes) and Devin Setoguchi(notes).
Clowe is starting to come on, with a couple of goals in the past two games after struggling with an injury in the first two. But after combining for nine goals and four assists in the Detroit series, Couture and Setoguchi have combined for one goal and one assist against Vancouver. The third line of Pavelski, Torrey Mitchell(notes) and Kyle Wellwood(notes) – so good in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings, with five goals and seven assists – has only one assist in this series.
“It’s not that long ago that we were connecting,” Mitchell said, “so hopefully we can figure it out here.”
It isn’t just offense, either. The Sharks haven’t been as sharp as usual all over the ice. They have taken bad penalties – like defenseman Douglas Murray(notes) firing the puck out of play in Game 4, giving the Canucks another 5-on-3 when they had just had two – and failed to execute fundamental plays.
“Not taking anything away from Vancouver, but a lot of our goals (against) are simple breakdowns in something we’ve been doing all year, whether it’s on the rush or on a controlled breakout – things that can’t happen,” Murray said. “You can’t give them easy goals, and we have.”
Murray did not look happy. He believes. He really does. This team has the talent to win the Stanley Cup, and it’s not over yet. But when you have the talent to win the Stanley Cup and you still stand on the precipice, knowing how often other teams have come back in these playoffs doesn’t necessarily make you feel better.
“It’s about as desperate as it gets, right?” Murray said. “You mess up one game, and you’re done for the season. This is what you fight for all year. Every year, the worst day is the day you get knocked out. It’s a very empty feeling both physically and mentally, and you know how much work is ahead of you to get to this point again. You don’t get here easy or automatically. It’s a matter of how good your team is, so …”
“Nothing I really want to think about right now.”
The Sharks have to believe. The alternative is too difficult to contemplate.