On opening night of the NHL season, the Los Angeles Kings put on a celebration worthy of the town they represent: a flashy, garish, special-effects laden (they dropped the Stanley Cup in from the ceiling!) sequel to the original celebration two years earlier. Then, they went out and got whipped by one of their most hated rivals, a team they had embarrassed not six months prior in the playoffs.
That team wasn’t motivated by revenge or particularly moved by the ceremony. Instead, while the Los Angeles Kings were celebrating a championship, the San Jose Sharks were simply relaxing. Wait, what?
“I think the show was about 20 minutes long, so we were just hanging out in the locker room,” forward Matt Nieto says. “We got out to a really great start in that game, it was nice to win it.”
Whatever Nieto means by “hanging out,” it clearly worked, as the Sharks picked apart the Kings on their night (not an uncommon feat for the road team when the home team is hanging a banner) and have simply gone about their business in the season’s opening weeks, starting out 4-2-1. Not that the Sharks are wary or mistrusting of such a great start.
“No, it’s a good thing,” Nieto – a 21-year-old winger raised in Long Beach and educated at Boston University – tells me. “Last season, I think we had a rough patch after a strong start, so if we just tighten up, we’ll keep going great.”
But still, to say they’ve just gone about their business is an understatement. In fact, the Sharks almost always start like this.
Last season, San Jose won six in a row to start the year and went 10-1-2 in the season’s opening month. The year before that, they roared out of the gate at 7-0-0. In fact, you have to go back more than a decade – to 2003 – to find the last time the Sharks didn’t go above .500 in the first month of a season, and after losing 2004 to the lockout, they’d acquire Joe Thornton in ’05, and set the tone for the next decade.
The San Jose Sharks are arguably one of the most successful NHL franchises of the past ten years, and can stake a legitimate claim to being the most consistently successful expansion franchise in any professional sport over the past 20. They haven’t missed the playoffs since ’03, and are 218-112-46 over the last five seasons, with only Pittsburgh and Chicago accumulating more regular season points (482) in that span. However, as you are probably aware, they are without a Stanley Cup win – or even a Stanley Cup Final appearance – in that time.
It’s not as though they haven’t come close. San Jose made the conference finals in consecutive seasons (2009, 2010) on the backs of stars like Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle. But they have stayed alive, thanks to a new era of star players like Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (yes, his nickname is “Pickles”). In fact, had Vlasic not been injured midway through round one of the playoffs, the franchise’s greatest postseason collapse – which is saying something – probably doesn’t happen.
In April, the Sharks became just the fourth team in NHL history to surrender a 3-0 lead in a series, letting the Los Angeles Kings start their run to a championship. Not only did the Kings do this, but they made it look fairly easy: it was four consecutive wins by a margin of three goals or more. No one outside of L.A. took glee in San Jose’s demise. “Joe Thornton Game 7 Face” became a depressing meme, but there’s a sense many want to see the lazy narratives of sportswriters proven wrong, and the Sharks to finally get it done.
Hockey fans are weary of hearing it: there are stories dating back to 2010 (!) questioning whether the team is a bunch of chokers. The stories were there in 2011, when they lost their second straight conference finals. In 2012, when they lost in round one, some wondered whether they were still a “true contender.” Critics dismissed them in 2013 when the Kings won a grueling back-and-forth second round series. And the words were certainly there last April, when San Jose was humiliated on a level only known only by a select few franchises.
What’s to give San Jose renewed hope in 2014-15? Well, aside from the continued presence of Thornton and the businesslike scoring of Marleau (12 20-plus goal seasons) and emerging superstars like Pavelski and Couture and Vlasic, they’re keeping a shorter leash on their starting goaltender. Veteran Antti Niemi – himself a Stanley Cup winner in Chicago – and Alex Stalock, who currently has just 30 starts in the NHL, have alternated starts this season, with each putting up a .933 save percentage in a small sample size. Niemi was well-below average during the series against the Kings, with head coach Todd McLellan calling on Stalock three times, including as a starter in Game 6.
They’ve made mostly cosmetic changes to the club, however. Boyle left for New York and has been replaced by committee, with the hope that Vlasic will continue to grow and 26-year-old Jason Demers can contribute more, while Brent Burns has been shifted from forward back to his original position at defense. A few rookies are trying to crack the regular lineup, which is true of every room this time of year. They brought in noted goon John Scott, but even he stepped into the lineup and magically contributed a goal. Everyone looks good in teal in October.
So what really changes? Perhaps a lack of satisfaction during these early starts is a new tack, one both Couture and Thornton took after a pretty decent-looking victory over New Jersey on Saturday.
“We’re winning games, but we’re not playing well,” Couture says. “We’re putting together spurts, but the games are scrambly. I want to say there’s panic in our game, which is unlike us. We’ve got a lot of young players in our lineup, and hopefully they’ll learn from this and it will make us better in the long run.”
“We’re just early on, we’re trying to find our identity as a team, just like the rest of them,” Thornton adds. “We’ve been on the road. We’re still feeling our way out, and hopefully soon we’ll play a full 60 minutes.”
San Jose seemingly looked fine other than a short stretch in which the Devils cut the Sharks lead from 3-0 to 3-2. The attitude on the bench when that happened, as put so eloquently by Thornton, might tell you something about where this team has been, and where it’s going.
“We just – relaxed. Just played. That’s how it usually goes.”
His attitude suggested someone who’s just about seen it all, probably because he has. What else can really go wrong for the Sharks? How else can you hurt them? They’ve felt some of the worst playoff pain imaginable. They’ve squandered seasons of promise and opportunities aplenty. But the light hasn’t gone out yet, and maybe this is the year they finally put it all together. Hey, what else do they have to lose?