A Western Conference changing of the guard inevitably was going to take place in the NHL, and this season seemed as good a time as any given the challenges faced by the Detroit Red Wings.
After going to the Stanley Cup Finals twice in a row and winning once, the Red Wings certainly looked vulnerable. There were key free-agent losses last summer and extended injuries to several impact players that made a 19th consecutive playoff appearance look unlikely as late as February. Truth is, Detroit would have fallen short were it not for a spectacular post-Olympic run.
|Evgeni Nabokov has played a big part in San Jose's success in the playoffs. (Getty Images)|
The Sharks have size, skill and speed throughout the lineup to go along with an all-star caliber goalie -- all the elements necessary for success. Yet they've been the NHL's most notorious underachievers since the lockout, perennially bowing out early in the playoffs after great regular seasons. Their will to win has naturally been questioned, and the expectations of failure surrounded them again coming into this postseason despite a first-place finish in the conference.
That's much to the dismay of the core group of players who have lived through it and understand that this may be the Sharks' last shot at getting it done as currently constructed. It's the challenge they have to deal with because the Sharks still have many disbelievers, but those numbers have to be dwindling now that San Jose has taken a 3-0 series lead over Detroit.
There are many reasons this is turning into such a shocking series. Detroit hasn't been able to hold third-period leads; Jimmy Howard has looked like the rookie he is in goal at the wrong times; and the Red Wings are hurting themselves by taking way too many penalties. But San Jose deserves credit for playing very solid hockey, something it started in an opening-round win over heavy underdog Colorado that was so efficient, it may have been underappreciated.
The Sharks did have some adversity in that series, most of it because they ran into a goalie who was playing out of his mind. But then, as now, they have shown patience and discipline, sticking to their game plan and making few mistakes along the way.
What is most apparent about San Jose these days is their wins are workmanlike, coming from creating opportunities and taking advantage of the magical moments that always seem part of success stories -- like dramatic third-period comebacks that have been the story of their past two wins against Detroit, and timely, if sometimes fluky, goals. Check out the Game 3 highlights to see where Logan Couture scored his overtime-forcing goal from and you'll get an idea.
In essence, San Jose is showing the kind of resilience and poise that has been missing from playoffs past. But what seems to be setting the Sharks apart now and is most promising moving forward is that the player they've been waiting on to lead them when it counts is doing just that at the moment.
No doubt Joe Thornton has been the prototypical great regular-season player and playoff disappointment during his career. But in what may turn out to be a defining series for the franchise, he is raising his game to the imposing level it should be against the Red Wings. And the other San Jose players who should be their best -- think goalie Evgeni Nabokov and linemates Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley -- are following his lead.
Nabokov has actually silenced his many critics with a fine postseason that began in the opening round against Colorado and has continued against more dangerous Red Wings. His great penalty shot save against Henrik Zetterberg in the first period of what became a 4-3 overtime win in Game 3 kept San Jose alive and might have been the turning point in the series.
And the Sharks have done a lot of their damage because their second line, led by the stunning scoring exploits of Joe Pavelski, has made a serious impact and taken some pressure off the top gunners.
But the big boys are starting to come through, and the reason right now seems to be Thornton. Jumbo Joe began his coming-out party in Game 2 by scoring the game winner on a night that Heatley had three assists and Marleau had helped set up a crucial goal.
It was Thornton's first goal of the playoffs, and he carried the momentum into the next game with a great solo effort to cut the Detroit's lead to 3-2 on a wraparound early in the third period. Then he set up Marleau's overtime winner with a superb feed off an odd-man rush.
"It's a big deal in our locker room," coach Todd McLellan said about the impact his best players are starting to make, "but it's probably a lot bigger for you guys who write and talk about our team and our game. We believe in those hockey players way more than the outside world does."
Maybe not for much longer.