It is an old, almost worn-out storyline as the year grinds to an end and 2014 dawns.
The San Jose Sharks are in the thick of the NHL landscape. With a little less than half the season played, they find themselves near the top of the NHL standings. They are a respectable 4th in the very competitive Western Conference. They are fifth overall in the National Hockey League. They are a mere 5 points away from the lead as they battle with the likes of the Anaheim Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues.
A familiar story, it is a “Been-there-done-that” tagline. There is nothing unusually different about this season. Although an entertaining squad, they have never made it to the Stanley Cup finals, let alone a Stanley Cup conquest.
Some may have grown tired wondering, “Is this the year?” Most Sharks fans live for the here and now, always filled with hope, ready to have their hearts broken.
However, the 2013/14 season has already been filled with some memorable moments.
Here are the top five of this campaign.
1. Dec. 23 vs. Colorado Avalanche — The Sharks give up a 3-2 lead with less than two minutes to play and then allow Colorado to take the lead 15 seconds later only to tie it up with less than 20 seconds to play. They win it in an impressive shootout. Rotary Youth exchange student Kristyna from the Czech Republic travels from Grass Valley to witness a dream of most of her fellow countrymen, a National Hockey League tilt. In the closing moments, seated in the exclusive Press Row, in a team neutral environment, she bends over the Press Table in pain. She pleads with the Sharks aloud to tie the game during the entire final minute. Usually one to quiet someone who overextends herself, I let it go. If ever the hockey gods were to reward someone, this is the moment. The Sharks scored and won the game moments later. She would exclaim later, “I knew it would work.”
2. Dec. 29 vs. the Anaheim Ducks — In a pivotal game for San Jose, they beat the Ducks 3-1 at SAP Center. The highlight is a goal by a minor league journeyman named Bracken Kearns. At 32 years old, he was approaching what some might consider the end of the trail. He had yet to score a National Hockey League goal. Mired in the minor leagues, he got the call to come west from the Sharks American Hockey League affiliate in Massachusetts. Many wondered if he would ever achieve his life’s goal of scoring an NHL tally. Yet it happened, and the celebration was memorable. It was simply one of those memorable moments one does not often witness. Coach Todd McLellan said. “It’s a great story isn’t it. It’s great for him, but there is also a lesson about believing in yourself and persevering. He’s done that. Even this year, there were times when he could have been dejected a little bit about not being the guy coming up. He came up. He left his mark on the game and on our team tonight, and I am proud of him for that.”
3. Nov. 30 vs. Anaheim Ducks — He is arguably the biggest sports star playing in the Bay Area these days. Joe Thornton is 25th all time in the NHL in assists. He is the captain and the team leader. When Thornton touches the puck, things happen. Approachable, friendly, and articulate off the ice, he does most of his talking with the stick in his hand. In an all-important three-game stretch versus St. Louis, Los Angeles and the Ducks, Thornton takes a shot just above the eye. He leaves the ice with blood streaming from his face. After many stitches, he re-emerges five minutes later with a half-closed eye that is already black and blue. He assists on the goal to give the Sharks their first lead, and San Jose wins for the third straight game. Simply true hockey grit.
4. Nov. 29 vs. St. Louis Blues — Brent Burns came from the Minnesota Wild two seasons ago as a well-respected defenseman. His appearance is more like Bigfoot than an NHL player. Wild hair, missing teeth, and a flowing beard are his trademarks. Earlier in the season, he would shave and get a buzz cut for charity. He doubled his goal. Half of the proceeds went to a foundation honoring the wife of past Sharks player Dominic Moore who died tragically after a valiant fight for life over the summer. Somewhere along the line, he was re-positioned to forward, a rare transformation in the NHL. On this afternoon, he would record three goals, his first National Hockey League hat trick. That was the difference in a 6-3 besting of St. Louis.
5. Oct. 15 at St. Louis Blues — Star defenseman Dan Boyle would suffer a vicious hit along the boards. He would lay unconscious for several minutes. He was removed from the ice on a stretcher and rushed to a local St. Louis hospital where Boyle would be kept overnight for observation. In this early season test against the No. 3 Western Conference team, the Sharks would respond with their sticks rather than their fists. In a 6-2 win, they would score power play goals to shock the Blues faithful. Boyle would rest and recover for several weeks, returning to reclaim his spot as one of the league’s top defensemen. Surprisingly, they would best St. Louis in their next two games, deciding to avenge Boyle’s injury with wins rather than physicality.
There is more than half a season to play. Sharks faithful have witnessed impressive play from Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Burns, Boyle and Tomas Hertl.
Hertl suffered a serious knee injury that will most likely sideline him until at least February. A Rookie of the Year candidate, his talents will truly help down the home stretch. There will be no Olympics for Hertl this year as a representative of the Czech Republic.
On the other hand, they will need better play from the third and fourth lines. On some nights, they have been lackluster, allowing scores by the opposition. McLellan depends on them heavily and has shown great patience. However, much more must be expected and demanded from Tyler Kennedy, Martin Havlat, James Sheppard and Andrew Desjardins.
The return of Raffi Torres and Adam Burish from serious injury could be a second-half boost.
Regardless, the Sharks are listed at 6 to 1 odds to win the Stanley Cup. Believe it or not, in this highly competitive league, this is a reason for hope.
Todd McLellan and his coaching staff are widely respected. However, the quest for the cup is much larger than personnel. Another exit without making it to at least the Western Conference Finals could leave GM Doug Wilson with a difficult postseason decision.
It all comes down to one point. Either make a very deep run in the playoffs, or all the accomplishments and conquests during the regular season are meaningless.
Jim Adams lives in Grass Valley and is a regular contributor to The Union and a broadcaster for TouchDown Productions. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.