I fully expect to be eviscerated for ranking this goal ahead of Jamie Baker's iconic tally, and that's completely fair. As I wrote yesterday, there's no overstating the importance of Baker's goal on a number of levels; as a fanbase, we've spent the last 18 years fondly recalling it for good reason. I chose a different goal to brand the most important in franchise history partially in an effort to combat predictability since Baker's goal and its implications have been thoroughly discussed countless times by everyone from Dan Rusanowsky to the dude selling hot dogs on the HP Pavilion concourse. But I also picked a different goal because I truly believe it had a more profound impact on the shape of the Sharks roster and organization as a whole than Baker's series winner.
Let's take a ride in the DeLorean back to April 2009. The President's Trophy-winning Sharks had just been ousted in embarrassing and devastating fashion by the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks. GM Doug Wilson, in an emotional press conference, said fans should "be pissed off" and "feel cheated" before apologizing to ownership and the fanbase, claiming no one in the organization was safe and reporting that players were crying. Keep in mind this was about two weeks after the team wrapped up a regular season in which they won 53 games and racked up nearly 120 standings points. To say there was more pressure on the team to perform at that point in history than any other would be a Douglas Murray-sized understatement.
Fast forward one year. Wilson had made good on his promise to make changes to the roster; Dany Heatley was in, Milan Michalek and Christian Ehrhoff were out and the bottom six had been completely revamped. The regular season result, however, was a familiar one: although the Sharks did fail to defend their President's Trophy, they still finished 1st in the Western Conference and won another Pacific Division title. They were once again opening the playoffs against the eighth seed, albeit, and I say this with all due respect to the 2010 Colorado Avalanche, one of the shittiest teams to qualify for postseason action in recent memory.
The series got off to about as predictable a start as you can imagine given how the Sharks' past few postseasons had gone. A Rob Blake own-goal with less than a minute remaining in Game 1 broke a tie and gave the Avs a 1-0 series lead. In Game 2, Evgeni Nabokov decided to post easily the worst performance of his career, giving up five goals on the first 13 shots he faced, leaving the Sharks down 5-4 with a minute and a half remaining in the third period. Todd McLellan called a timeout and you can only imagine what was going through his and the players' heads at that moment. If, for the second consecutive season, the first-seeded Sharks suffered the embarrassment of dropping their first two home games of the playoffs against an eighth seed, especially a team as lowly as the 2010 Avs, the repercussions would have been enormous and likely apocalyptic for the team as it was then constructed.
Heading to the Pepsi Center down two games to none almost certainly meant losing that series, especially if the butterfly effect in this hypothetical universe hadn't prevented Dan Boyle's infamous overtime "winner" in Game 3. For better or worse, a second straight first-round series loss as the top seed in the conference would have resulted in the media, fanbase and ownership erupting with disdain. Patrick Marleau would have likely been allowed to walk as a free agent, it's entirely possible Joe Thornton and/or Dan Boyle would have been dangled on the trade market in an ill-advised attempt at a rebuild and the best Sharks team in history would have been completely dismantled. Hell, it's also probable the person in charge of the dismantling would not have been Doug Wilson. However you feel about it, it's a fact that there has been no larger accomplishment (at least as far as the playoffs are concerned) in the team's 21-year existence than the back-to-back conference finals appearances San Jose managed in 2010 and 2011. It's very nearly a given that would have never happened if the final ninety seconds of Game 2 versus the Avs had remained scoreless.
In times of grave danger, you turn to a hero. Sometimes it's an American Hero. This was one of those times:
Most of us enjoyed the NHL's "History Will Be Made" ad campaign from a few years back that openly asked what the consequences of memorable events throughout the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs having never occurred would have been. If Jamie Baker had never scored to lead the Sharks to victory over Detroit in 1994, we would have lost out on a hell of a plucky underdog story, the Sharks wouldn't have had the chance at precocious greatness that flickered and faded when that Johan Garpenlov shot rang off the post and it's likely the fanbase wouldn't have grown at the rate that it did. On the other hand, a three-year-old franchise even making it to Game 7 against the heavily favored Red Wings would have been seen as an enormously successful campaign and earned the support of the community. Assuming it wasn't somehow causally linked to the Baker goal, Ray Whitney's double-OT winner the following season would have likely grown the fanbase and, realistically, the Sharks weren't going to win the Cup in 1994.
If Joe Pavelski hadn't banged that loose puck past Craig Anderson with 32 seconds left in regulation to tie Game 2, the core group that had proven integral to the post-lockout Sharks, far and away the best iteration of the team in franchise history, would have almost certainly been detonated. The team would have never had the chances at glory they earned by making it to the Final Four that spring and the next. Some (clueless) people might contend that getting rid of Wilson, Marleau and Thornton would have been a terrific move for the organization but even they can't argue that it would have been a turning point the likes of which this franchise, and most others in the NHL for that matter, has never seen. Pavelski's goal prevented a scorched-earth rebuild or anything resembling that from being necessary and instead paved the way for the Sharks to repeat Baker's feat of knocking the Red Wings out of the playoffs twice more en route to two separate conference finals appearances. I'm fully aware that a goal that didn't even hold up as the winner in Game 2 of a first-round playoff series doesn't look like "most important goal in team history" material on paper but, then again, since when has anything the Sharks have done in the postseason been a reflection of what things looked like on paper?