Sharks' late stumbles no sign of things to come

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

This wasn't the way the San Jose Sharks envisioned winning their first Presidents' Trophy – losing the last two games of the regular season to long-eliminated Phoenix and Los Angeles only to have Buffalo do the dirty work by beating Boston on Saturday.

The funny thing is once they drop the puck for Game 1 of a first-round series in San Jose next week, all of the "backing in" the Sharks did to win the West and eventually finish atop the overall standings will be forgotten. The biggest significance derived from finishing better than anyone else is the luxury of hosting a Game 5 or Game 7 of every playoff series.

The bigger picture here is in fact, well, the big picture. The Sharks are the Stanley Cup favorites heading into the two-month grind, and it's not because they won the Presidents' Trophy. General manager Doug Wilson has built a championship-caliber team, coach Todd McLellan has taught them a system that works, and it's now up to the players to execute one series at a time.

The Sharks' regular season resembled what the Red Wings did last year, and what the Ducks did two years ago. Detroit last season and Anaheim in 2006-07 were a notch above everyone else in the style of play more so than points accrued in the standings. Then both teams completed their résumés by playing exactly the same way in the playoffs to win the last two Cups.

That is the challenge before the Sharks, a team that shot out of the gate and only got slowed late when, with the Pacific Division title in their back pocket, they got banged up for a bit. The Red Wings went through a similar predicament in February last season when five of their top six defensemen got hurt. That was the only blip on the screen.

San Jose appears close to full health as it begins its march. At one time there were 10 regulars out of the lineup last month. On Saturday, Jonathan Cheechoo did not play for a second straight game, but proclaimed he would be ready for Game 1. The San Jose lineup is so deep that Cheechoo, the 2005-06 Rocket Richard winner with 56 goals, is now an insurance policy on the team's third line because the speedy Devin Setoguchi has emerged to be a better fit with first-liners Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton.

The forwards are deep, and McLellan has players he can call on if changes need to be made. The team spent much of the season looking for the right combination on the third and fourth lines since the top-six group is obvious: Milan Michalek, Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe as a second group that very much complements the top line. In fact, Pavelski's line has been San Jose's most consistent group the last six weeks of the season.

It appears McLellan will settle on a third group that includes Travis Moen, Marcel Goc and Mike Grier. Moen, picked up from Anaheim at the trade deadline, was instrumental for the Ducks during their Stanley Cup run. Grier is an energy player who may have lost a step and doesn't have the hands he once had, but both will bring it in the postseason. Goc has improved tremendously in the faceoff circle like Pavelski, and should give the Sharks what they want in a shutdown/energy line.

Cheechoo could see third-line duty, too, but might slot in on any line depending on injuries and needs.

The fourth group will include Tomas Plihal and Jeremy Roenick on most nights with Jody Shelley and Claude Lemieux (hello, Red Wings) available to play depending on what tone McLellan wants to set with players who will probably see only 6-7 minutes a night barring overtime.

The depth on defense is an area where the Sharks have to be pleased. The top six of Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Rob Blake, Christian Ehrhoff, Douglas Murray and Brad Lukowich is a solid blend of offense, physical presence, speed, skill, puck-moving ability and smarts. Beyond that, that Sharks still can plug in Alexei Semenov, Kent Huskins (should be healthy during Round 1) and rookie Derek Joslin.

And don't forget this name: Kyle McLaren.

The veteran was sent to the minors this year because his salary wouldn't fit, but also the organization felt others had passed him by. A deadline deal to Philly was voided when McLaren failed a physical (hand problems from an injury). Hey, he's not a bad option if the Sharks have to call on a 10th defenseman somewhere along the way in the third or fourth round.

Then there's the goaltending, headed by Evgeni Nabokov. The 33-year-old gets questioned in some corners, but he shouldn't. Nabokov is technically sound and knows when to dial it up mentally. He's durable, driven and focused on winning the big prize.

Ultimately, however, winning or falling short rests with a team's top players. That means there's no hiding for Thornton, Marleau, Boyle and Nabokov. Those will be the players that have to come through more often than not for San Jose.

Yes, the Sharks have been here before, but their fate this postseason is not tied to the failures of the past. If San Jose gets eliminated before reaching a first Stanley Cup Finals, it won't be because the team has fallen short of expectations previously.

All the pieces are in place. Let the journey begin.

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