After seven playoff wins in nine playoff games, you can see it coming together for the San Jose Sharks. Which means you start picturing the previously unimaginable:
Gary Bettman, through lusty boos as usual, telling Captain Joe Thornton to come collect the Stanley Cup. ... Jumbo, with an almost adolescent exuberance, passes it to Patrick Marleau, who lifts it high above the years of underachievement in his career. ... Eventually, it goes to Dany Heatley, who gives the Cup a smooch while wondering what Steve Tambellini and Bryan Murray are up to these days.
The most tantalizing thing about these Sharks — and the scariest, if you consider the scenario above to be nightmarish — is that this playoff run has proven that The Big Three are still important to the team but no longer its engine. There are different heroes nearly every night for the Sharks, who can close out the Detroit Red Wings in Game 4 on Friday night.
They could post their first playoff sweep in franchise history. Things are different this time.
Consider their 2011 playoff run thus far:
Win 1: In Game 1 of the quarterfinals, Joe Pavelski scores at 14:44 of overtime, his third career OT goal, to lead San Jose to a 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings.
Win 2: In Game 3 vs. the Kings, it's Devin Setoguchi scoring at 3:09 of overtime against Jonathan Quick, capping that five-goal rally for the 6-5 victory.
Win 3: Ryane Clowe opens the scoring in Game 4 at 3:58 of the second and then adds a critical third goal for San Jose later in the period during the 6-3 road victory.
Win 4: Proving yet again that expectations and reputations in the Stanley Cup Playoffs can change in an instant, Joe Thornton scores the series-clinching goal at 2:22 of overtime to win Game 6, 4-3, in Los Angeles.
Win 5: Something called "Benn Ferriero" scores at 7:03 in overtime to give the Sharks the 2-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings in Game 1 of the semifinals.
Win 6: Hey, look, they have a goalie, too. Antti Niemi plays the second-best game of his postseason life (that 2-1 win over San Jose while with the Blackhawks is probably his masterpiece at this point) in stopping 33 shots and letting goals by offensive juggernauts Ian White and Niclas Wallin to stand in the 2-1 Game 2 win.
Win 7: The Setoguchi show again, as his first career playoff hat trick was completed at 9:21 of overtime for the 4-3 Game 3 victory.
Seven wins, six different heroes. This is a team with 14 different goal-scorers in the playoffs.
That the Red Wings have 15 is very much a positive point of comparison. In fact, it's no coincidence that three of the seven teams remaining in the playoffs have strong ties to the Detroit machine: The Wings themselves, the Sharks (with coach Todd McLellan) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (with GM Steve Yzerman). They're different variations of the same themes, and they're all excelling.
In Sharks' case, their transformation into a Wings-like playoff team has produced seven wins over Detroit in eight games. Quoth Darth McLellan: "The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner. Now I am the master."
We've been asked a few dozen times this postseason: What's different about the Sharks?
The fact that you can throw a dart at their lineup Friday night and have a good chance of hitting the name that will make the difference in victory is, undeniably, one big difference than in previous disappointing campaigns.