SAN JOSE — They’ve been called the Buffalo Bills of hockey: always a favorite, never the champ. But now the Sharks are being cast into a new role that could reshape the team’s underachiever image.
After winning four straight Pacific Division titles, the Sharks — the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference — head into this year’s first-round Stanley Cup playoff matchup with the second-seeded St. Louis Blues in uncharted waters as the low-seed underdog.
“We’ve had the experience of being that No. 1 seed and realize that it really doesn’t do much for you other than get you one extra home game,” coach Todd McLellan said. “Anything can happen.”
The Sharks aren’t exactly your run-of-the-mill low seed. The team is making its eighth straight playoff appearance and the roster is loaded with veterans — such as Joe Thornton, Ryane Clowe, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic — who have been along for at least five of those postseason runs. And while they’ve failed to bring Lord Stanley’s Cup to Silicon Valley, the Sharks have won more playoff games since 2004 (47) than any team but Detroit.
On the other bench is a St. Louis group that contended for the President’s Trophy (awarded to the team with the most regular-season points) right up to the last day of the season, but has never laced up the skates as a team in the playoffs.
“At some point, I do believe experience comes into play,” McLellan said.
Momentum’s another variable that could work in the Sharks’ favor. In past years, the team has cruised to division titles only to run up against hungry underdogs that had fought and scrapped for weeks to make the playoffs.
Forward Torrey Mitchell said that was the case in 2008 when the Sharks were upset as the Western Conference’s top seed in the first round by the Anaheim Ducks.
“They’d been playing playoff hockey for a while,” he said. “Next thing you know, we found ourselves down 2-0.”
Right now, the Sharks are the hot team that no sane coach wants to face. Two weeks ago, it looked like Thornton and the boys might be headed for the golf links after losing back-to-back games to Anaheim and Phoenix. Instead, they put together what might be the most clutch performance in franchise history, winning four straight division games with their necks under the guillotine. “Those four games were all playoff games,” Vlasic said. “That definitely will help us out for this series.”
By contrast, the Blues looked complacent down the stretch, dropping four of five games after clinching the Central Division.
Game 1: Thursday at St. Louis, 4:30 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday at St. Louis, 4:30 p.m.
Game 3: Monday at Sharks, 7 p.m.
Game 4: April 19 at Sharks, 7:30 p.m.
Game 5: April 21 at St. Louis, 4:30 p.m.*
Game 6: April 23 at Sharks, TBD*
Game 7: April 26 at Sharks, TBD*
(All games televised on Comcast SportsNet California, radio broadcast on (98.5/102.1 FM))