Make no mistake, there's nothing better than playoff hockey. A bead of sweat trickling down a brow, the electricity of a 2 on 1, that frothing tidal wave of emotion that bubbles up from your gut before the third period begins. That split second of silence just before the puck drops during a defensive zone faceoff when a penalty kill is about to get underway-- and just a moment later, the roar of the crowd when the puck is cleared.
The NHL regular season is a marathon, the playoffs a 100 meter sprint. You settle into a rythm over the course of 82 games-- if not for your sanity then at least for the sanity of your family and friends. But during the playoffs all bets are off. That swell rushes over your head and you relax in the undertow. Calm in chaos. Serene in the face of insanity.
Every once in awhile during the regular season, that slow and steady marathon gives you a glimpse of a sprint. Maybe it's a third period in Vancouver, the first ten minutes at home against Anaheim, or a power play in Chicago. It's rare, but you can sense it. Something feels different. The pace of the game, the crunch of the boards, the ping of the post. It develops into something that becomes greater than the sum of its parts, fueled by a nostalgic romanticism of games seen once before. An experience that leaves you yearning for more. Aching for April.
It's a rare occasion when all of that comes together, especially in February. The playoff push is underway, teams are fighting for playoff positioning, and opposing teams become secondary to the points on the table. The jerseys change but the faces remain the same-- blank, expressionless, mere obstacles in the quest to slowly climb up the standings ladder. It becomes repetitive, but alas, it is the nature of the beast.
Tonight's 4-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings was more than that. The San Jose Sharks, for the first time in team history, have swept the Wings at Joe Louis Arena. It has been a venerable house of horrors for the organization in years past, and with both teams in the midst of playing their best hockey of the season, lived up to the promise that these types of games always seem to have.
It goes without saying at this point, but the Sharks have managed to turn their season around in just over a month. Their struggles through the better part of 50 games have been cleansed, and the infusion of new blood from players like Ben Eager, Kyle Wellwood, and Ian White have allowed this roster to weather injuries and scoring slumps. Devin Setoguchi, who scored a pair of goals tonight, has rebounded from a downward spiral that spanned a year and a half of his career. He has been one of the best players on the Sharks in the last two weeks, providing the bulk of the team's scoring and doing so with all the flair expected of him. Patrick Marleau has risen from the depths of a dissapointing 2010 to find his way again in 2011. Niemi has been downright amazing. Team defense, a concern for the majority of the season, was addressed to some degree even before the acquisition of Ian White-- San Jose's season-high seven game road trip saw them give up a grand total of eleven goals as the Sharks found ways to win despite the offense going cold.
With White able to log top four minutes, providing excellent puck moving ability from the blueline as well as a dangerous slapshot, the Sharks are able to lay on the gas a little more throughout the course of a game. Detroit jumped on San Jose early in the first period but the Sharks handled it in stride. Timely goals from Joe Thornton, Ryane Clowe, and Devin Setoguchi kept the Sharks in the lead, goals that sprung out of nowhere in the midst of periods of play where Detroit looked like they were just a shift away from scoring another goal. It was a balancing act where the variables involved had to be just right. It was a night when San Jose made explosive plays in the face of adversity, created opportunity out of the limited chances they had to work with.
Twenty games ago a one goal lead heading into the third period would have resulted in the Sharks going into a defensive shell and attempting to withstand the oncoming barrage. But not tonight. San Jose came out flying in the third period, dominating the Red Wings for the first ten minutes. They were aggressive in the offensive zone, pushed the puck in deep, and gave the green light to their defenseman to pinch on loose pucks along the sideboards. And it paid off. Although the Red Wings would go on to score with two minutes remaining in the third period to make things interesting, and San Jose needed a brilliant toe save from Antti Niemi in the dying seconds to hold onto the lead, it was the first time in a long time that adversity wasn't a team-wide propensity for self-inflicted wounds.
Detroit is a team too talented to be counted out of games. And the Sharks decision to come out of the locker room with that killer instinct to start the period is something that is great to see.
Everything isn't all fun and games in San Jose of course. The backup goaltender situation will likely need to be addressed before the trade deadline if Antero Niittymaki's situation does not improve, and the team's offensive output, which has shown very promising signs as of late, could always have more firepower to work with. Dany Heatley's struggles this season have become something that is confusing to say the least, and a very disappointing 2011 calendar year brings with it more questions than answers.
But as a whole, this team has become a force in the Western Conference. They've become what they have always been on paper-- a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. One who can go into Joe Louis Arena and beat a red-hot Detroit team.
13-2-1 in their last sixteen.
San Jose has its swagger back.