I’m a hockey fan, and if you insist that I be more specific I will tell you that I’m a fan of the local NHL franchise, the San Jose Sharks. Almost every year this team makes it to the playoffs. Almost every year they exit early.
Which is mostly just math. Half the teams in the playoffs are eliminated in the first round. By the end of the second round, only four remain. So MOST of the teams that make the playoffs go home early. But you do that too many years in a row, you get a reputation. Even if you go home because of a bizarre bounce in an overtime that shouldn’t have happened except the ref blew a call with 33 seconds to go in regulation.
Right now San Jose is skating agains St. Louis in a titan battle of saints in which God must be careful not to take sides. Like Joseph, Louis has earned a reputation for early exits. One of the two will reach the finals.
Three games in, it’s pretty easy to see that my team is the better of the two. Nashville took it to San Jose a couple of times in the previous round, but the Sharks answered by playing really good hockey. That good hockey has carried into the semifinal round with the Blues.
The Blues deserve to be here. They are a very good team, and they beat powerhouse Dallas fair and square. They beat the Stars by beating on them, and getting under their skin, and making Dallas do stupid things. They came out against the Sharks with the same strategy — and it failed utterly. A dude friggin’ pulled Joe Thornton’s beard and the Sharks laughed it off and scored on the power play. The Sharks, under the leadership of captain Joe Pavelski, just don’t take the bait.
Last game, Newt Gingrich Ken Hitchcock pulled his bullies and agitators and tried to match the Sharks with speed and skill. For a while, it seemed to be working. But nobody plays Sharks hockey better than the Sharks do.
And there’s the thing. Some time around the start of 2016 Joe Thornton started backchecking with energy and the rest of the team stepped up and Burns stopped making stupidly overoptimistic passes and it feels different this year. This isn’t a team getting by, it’s a team offering both an unstoppable offense and a disciplined defense (3 shutouts in the last 4 playoff games) and exposing no weaknesses to exploit. A team like that can laugh when an agitator on the other side tries to lure them into mistakes. Even people on the East Coast are waking up to what a good team this is.
It feels different this year. The Sharks aren’t looking for answers, they aren’t looking for the weakness of the other team. They’re playing their game, and they’re doing it well. It’s up to their opponents to solve the Sharks, and so far none has. Man, it’s been fun to watch.
It’s sports, and anything can happen. I felt confident two years ago when the Sharks went up 3-0 on the Kings only to choke away the playoffs. But this year the Sharks handled the Kings pretty easily, and while Nashville gave them a run for their money the way the Sharks emerged from that series has carried over.
What’s different this year? Maybe the most important thing is the C on Pavelski’s sweater. But don’t forget Wardo, and Donkey, and Jones. Don’t forget old man Zubrus making the fourth line a disciplined unit and a legitimate threat. Hertl’s lovely slap shot to open the scoring last night is now a rarity; under the new management the Czech kid is expected to be a complete player, not just a sniper but a stout defender and a guy willing to mix it up down near the goal. He has embraced the role and thrives on the chaos around the net. “Now I go to net, get rebound and score. Is better.”
The team knows: this is their chance. The older players, Thornton and Marleau in particular, know that time is running out, and this year they’re playing like their legacies are on the line. The new kids are hungry, and skilled, but they are inheriting discipline from the old-timers. It really is a joy to watch. At this time they are still six wins from their first championship, but no matter what happens I thank the Sharks for making it different this year.