California Dreamin’?

The idea of “team history” is often statistically meaningless in sports.
Some teams DO dominate others over the course of twenty years. But does that mean anything for the current players, if none of them were on the team twenty years ago? That’s the question that may be on the line for the San Jose Sharks. They are facing off against the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of their playoff pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

In its 17 years, San Jose has made it to the conference finals exactly once, in 2003-4. They haven’t been to the Cup Finals at all. If the Sharks were simply a lousy team, this would be a possible case of playoff failure making sense. But they aren’t. San Jose has gone from some poor play in the early developmental years to becoming regular contenders. This year has San Jose fans seeing blood in the Shark Tank. Their team has been dominant. They accumulated a league-best 111 points and won the President’s Trophy. In this decade, the Sharks have finished first in the Pacific four times. They finished 2nd. three times. And one ugly year in 2002-2003 they finished fifth and didn’t qualify for the playoffs.

Regular season success ought to translate into playoff success. But it hasn’t. Last year the Sharks were first in the Pacific once again. They were discarded in the conference semifinals by the Dallas Stars.
Anaheim was also a victim of the Stars in last year’s playoffs, in the first round. But this California team has a history that is very different from their northern neighbors’. In 14 years of NHL play, the Ducks have been generally dismal in the regular season. But they have been to the Stanley Cup Finals twice. And of course they won it all in 2006-7. Yet they’ve failed to make the playoffs more than half the seasons they’ve been in existence.

This year the Ducks weren’t particularly impressive. They had to make up a lot of ground late in the season just to get in the playoffs.
This playoff match-up is the first all-California series since 1969, when the Los Angeles Kings defeated the Oakland Seals. If the Sharks are to advance to their ultimate goal, they are going to rely on their willingness and ability to score. This is a team that finished 7th-best in goals scored.

But this is not a strong defensive team. Only two teams in the league gave up more goals. Anaheim is a middle-of-the pack team on offense and defense. It isn’t likely to outscore to win by significant margins against anyone in the playoffs. But they are also a strangely resilient bunch. Their record in games away from home is 22-15-4. That’s a shade better than San Jose’s 21-3-7.

So San Jose’s presumed home-ice advantage is somewhat nullified by the Ducks’ ability to get the job done anywhere. The first game of the series proves that point. The Sharks spent the entire regular season building in home-ice advantage over anyone who skates. But the Ducks stole it, 2-0. Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf was large and in charge, picking up right where he left off in the regular season.
He led the Ducks with 91 points in the regular season. He had a goal and an assist in the first playoff game. He also played strong defense, helping out Switzerland’s Jonas Hiller. Hiller has been making believers with his strong play in his second year in the NHL. In the first game he stopped 35 shots. That added a playoff gem to his four regular-season shutouts.

The question of fortitude has never been louder for the Sharks. This is a team that fired Ron Wilson this last year. Wilson was the most successful coach they’ve ever had. This is also a team that brought in a slew of Cup veterans. The list includes Claude Lemieux and Travis Moen on the wings and defensemen Rob Blake and Dan Boyle.
These guys know winning. They know how to pick themselves up after a loss too. Those are two qualities that the Sharks seem to lack, if past playoff history is any indication.

So in some senses the San Jose predicament comes down to a question of which history they choose to believe. They can choose to believe the history of winning they have brought in with new players. They can choose to believe the history of the regular season, in which they dominated, including a 4-2 record against the Ducks.
Or they can choose to believe the history of the team’s playoff results, in which someone else always ends up skating away with the Stanley Cup.

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