Remember when the NHL's playoff promo slogan was "Is this the year?"
Unfortunately for the San Jose Sharks, they are still asking the question. In fact, the words have been stuck in their heads in every playoff season since the lockout including this one, and for good reason.
San Jose has been the league's best regular-season team since play resumed, averaging well over 100 points and finishing either first or second in their division each season.
Problem is, they've yet to get past the semifinal round and last year, they didn't even make it that far. The repeated failings have become part of their DNA, and much to their dismay, has earned them the label of the league's biggest underachievers.
"That's our reputation right now and it's extremely hard to change," conceded forward Joe Pavelski, San Jose's top scorer in the opening round. "That's our challenge."
And it won't be particularly easy because the Western Conference champions now have to face the high-flying Detroit Red Wings.
That's the kind of test San Jose would probably have needed to pass at some point to get where they want to go, although they would have certainly preferred dealing with the stumbling block a little closer to the end.
Instead, the Sharks have a second-round date with the Red Wings, who were the NHL's hottest team for the last two months of the season and are coming off a frighteningly dominant performance in Game 7 of their opening-round win over Phoenix.
And if that weren't enough, Detroit beat San Jose three of four times this season, with the Sharks' only win requiring a shootout and a 50-save effort from their goalie Evgeni Nabokov.
"We've got to understand that it only gets harder from here," Pavelski said. "For us, the playoffs are about overcoming."
Still the question remains, is this the year?
Here's a closer look at what it might take to find out in the Western Conference semifinal series between the Sharks and Red Wings.
How they got here: San Jose went wire to wire in first place in the Pacific Division, landing the top seed in the West as a result. They needed six games to turn aside the Avalanche in Round 1, but only because Avs goalie Craig Anderson stood on his head.
Intangibles: Does being overdue count? The Sharks have become the quintessential example of a team that can't bring it at crunch time, but they've gone through a pretty significant personnel change this season and overcame some trying moments in the first round to advance. Then again beating the eighth-seeded Colorado Avalanche really was a given, although there were times -- remember Dan Boyle scoring into his own net in overtime? -- when it seemed in doubt. Still, the Sharks found a way to come through in the end, even without much in the way of contributions from their top players. They earned themselves a few extra days of rest, which never hurts at playoff time, and they get to start at home, where they lost fewer games in regulation than anyone in the conference.
Strengths: The Sharks can bring the offense, have a good balance of power and speed on defense, and Nabokov is an all-star caliber goalie who looked shaper than he normally does at playoff time in the opening round. Their size lets them play a physical game when necessary, and their special teams are just that, with both power-play and penalty-killing units ranking among the top five this season.
Player to watch: Patrick Marleau had the captaincy taken away before the season and responded with a career year. His playoff effort hasn't been nearly as good, and he knows that unless he steps up, chances are he'll be in another uniform next season.
Key matchup: Physical defenseman Rob Blake and Douglas Murray against Detroit's net crashers, Tomas Holmstrom, Todd Bertuzzi and Johan Franzen. Nabokov will have enough trouble without having his views obstructed.
How they got here: Detroit endured its most difficult regular season in years, but finished strong and made the playoffs for the 19th consecutive season. They advanced by downing the upstart Phoenix Coyotes in seven games.
Intangibles: Their experience in the playoffs obviously helps, but what seems to separate the Red Wings from the rest of the pack is the culture of winning that permeates the organization. And it has never been more evident than this season, when Detroit dealt with several free-agent defections and long-term injuries to a number of key players. The combination threatened to end the Red Wings' run of playoff appearances that dates back to the first President Bush, but Detroit kept its head above water until everyone returned and then caught fire to capture the fifth seed with more than 100 points. That made them the team no one wanted to face in the first round. But a second-round matchup isn't necessarily any more pleasant.
Strengths: The Red Wings are fast, they play smart at both ends of the ice, and they can take their game to a higher level when necessary. Their top players -- think Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom -- tend to be at their best at this time of year, and the supporting cast would be up for Oscars annually if they were in the movies. Plus they have the league's best coach, Mike Babcock, who doesn't get enough credit for the way he handles all his talent.
Player to watch: A couple of shaky performances by Jimmy Howard brought out the cynics, but the rookie goalie responded well when he had to. He'll have a tougher test in Round 2 against the Sharks, who have a more potent offense than Phoenix.
Key matchup: Second-unit defensemen Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall will likely deal with Pavelski's line, which was San Jose's most dangerous in the first round. Joe Thornton's unit was nowhere against Colorado, but they will face Lidstrom and Rafalski regardless.
PREDICTION: Detroit in 6.