San Jose's 6-3 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Friday night in Game 5 earned them a 4-1 series victory over their arch rivals. The final victory in Los Angeles was a fitting example of what this year's Sharks are all about.
When Kris Versteeg scored at 16:36 of the second period to fully erase what had been a Sharks 3-0 lead, a large portion of the Sharks fan base had that "oh no, here we go again feeling." In years past, the Sharks likely would have folded.
Only San Jose didn't fold.
Not this time.
Not this team.
Yes, Joe Thornton remains San Jose's best player and the team without him would be pretty average as noted in this fantastic read by CBS Sports' Adam Gretz from earlier this season. However, I'm not as harsh on the rest of the Sharks as Gretz, who infers the Sharks are basically the Oilers without Thornton.
Gretz points out that the Blackhawks' possession and goals-for numbers without Patrick Kane are 49.2 and 41.8 respectively. San Jose's possession and goals-for numbers have a bigger drop without Thornton because Thornton has been much better in those categories than Kane, but the team numbers themselves are actually higher at 49.3 and 43.9.
I, for one, don't believe the Hawks would be as bad as the Oilers without Kane, nor would the Sharks be without Thornton.
Thornton is still driving the Sharks ship, but this year's incarnation of both Thornton himself and the rest of the roster is far different than years past.
Sharks Overall Depth Far Improved
Last season the Sharks had holes up and down their lineup and yet their core players, those whom remain this season, still carried the team to a second place spot in the division through the end of January. That core being Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun and Brent Burns had little help around them.
This season however, newcomers Joel Ward (four assists in the LA series), Paul Martin (tied for team lead with a plus-4 rating in the first round), Joonas Donskoi (first star of clinching game 5) and goaltender Martin Jones have all been nothing short of superb in their first years as Sharks.
Not to mention other role players like Melker Karlsson, Matt Nieto, Tommy Wingels and Chris Tierney have provided far better overall play than the bottom-six the last couple of years. Gone are goons like Adam Burish, Mike Brown and John Scott, who lack the offensive skill to contribute from the fourth line. Instead of having at least one fourth line goon regularly playing only six-seven minutes a night the past few seasons, the Sharks currently are actually skating their worst forward over 11 minutes in these playoffs.
Deep Down the Middle
Thornton may have carried the possession numbers for this team overall this year, but a lot of that had to do with the team's struggles in the first half of the season while Couture was out with injury. Couture's Fenwick-for percentage this season is a terrific 54.2% while playing less than 30 of his just over 600 minutes of even strength ice time with Thornton. It's no accident that the team's second half was far better than its first with Couture back healthy and taking some of the load of Thornton's shoudlers.
With Thornton, Couture and Marleau down the middle through most of the second half and here in the playoffs, the Sharks are as tough to handle as any team in the league. Marleau's line may not generate nearly as much offense as the other two lines at even strength, but with NIeto and Karlsson on his wings, the line has two of the fastest skaters in the league and an above average skater in Karlsson. They don't give opponents much time and space to operate and they have been incredibly disruptive on the forecheck.
San Jose has three really tough forward lines to contain and a fourth that regularly gets the better of their fourth line matchups. They have two elite top defense pairs and two No. 1 quality netminders. They certainly haven't had this type of depth throughout the roster ever before in franchise history. That is why the Sharks weren't able to get over the hump in years past. Head coach Peter DeBoer made that very same observation in his post-game press conference after Game 5. It's never been Thornton nor Marleau's fault.
Combine the top guys being as strong as ever, with the best depth they've ever had and a renewed spirit that no longer seems to break when things start to go south, and this is a team Sharks fans should believe in. This team feels different, feels special. Three more rounds to go and they just beat the toughest opponent they will face all postseason long with their MVP not even doing all that much (Thornton just three points in the series, tied sixth on the team). They have all the ingredients necessary to go all the way and win that first Stanley Cup.