Bay Area sports fans are getting spoiled. The Giants won the World Series in October, the 49ers played in the Super Bowl just a weekend ago and even the Warriors are in playoff contention right now.
But what about the one team that was winning consistently while the Giants, 49ers and Warriors puttered through years of mediocrity?
The Sharks have collected the NHL’s second-most points since Joe Thornton arrived on Dec.1, 2005, and they are off to the races again this year, holding a 7-2-2 record heading into tonight’s road game with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But will Thornton and the boys keep up the pace when the games really start to count in the spring?
They cynics will say: same faces, same Sharks, same result. The team was bounced in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in April with virtually the same lineup. Why would this season end any differently?
The Sharks didn’t orchestrate a series of flashy moves over summer, but they did make a few subtle tweaks that could give them their best shot at bringing Lord Stanley’s Cup to Northern California thus far.
The key additions (other than Brad Stuart) won’t be seen throwing hits or roofing pucks — they do their work from behind the bench.
In July, coach Todd McLellan added Hall of Famer Larry Robinson and 13-year NHL defenseman Jim Johnson to his coaching staff, bringing a more disciplined, structured system of hockey to the Shark Tank.
After his playing days ended, Robinson won three Stanley Cups as a coach with the New Jersey Devils; he was interim coach for one of them (2000). The Devils are famous for introducing the neutral-zone trap and while rule changes may have forced tweaks to the system, defensive-minded teams have ruled the ice since its advent.
Look at the Los Angeles Kings last season and the Boston Bruins the year before. You don’t need top a scorer to win in the NHL. A tight system, a sizzling goalie and a string of overtime wins is usually what it takes to raise the Cup. And the Sharks have the personnel on the blue line to play a tight-checking system.
The Sharks may have fooled you in the first five games when Patrick Marleau netted nine goals, Thornton collected 13 points and the power play lit the lamp 12 times in 32 chances.
But McLellan’s club has clamped things down in the last six games, four of which have gone to shootouts. These are double- and triple-overtime games in the playoffs and if you win them, you have a good chance of playing for the Cup in June.
The Sharks are known for their offensive prowess, but they are currently tied for first in the league in goals allowed (20), goaltender Antii Niemi is fifth in goals-against average (1.82) and the team has killed 34 straight penalties. These are the ingredients of winning hockey and the things Robinson and Johnson like to focus on.
A quick glance at the Sharks’ bench and you’ll see a lot of familiar faces. But it’s the guys in the suits and the brand of hockey they preach that might give the Sharks their best chance yet of capturing the Cup.
Paul Gackle is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner and also writes at www.gacklereport.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.