We're gathered here today to mourn the loss of what could have made this so much more than just another dreary October evening. We're here to lament the passing of what could--nay, should--have been the opening of the Sharks' 2012-13 regular season campaign. What should have been the beginning of one of the core group of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle's last real chances at a Stanley Cup. What should have been the reignition of the team's fierce intrastate rivalry with the Anaheim Ducks. What should have been a chance at redemption after those very Ducks somehow managed to take five of six games from San Jose during last year's season series. What should have been a round of Haagen-Dazs ice cream on Bruce Boudreau after the Sharks administered an ass-kicking to the worst hockey team in California.
Instead, we have none of that. The lockout claimed its first victims of consequence a week ago and this contest was one of the first to suffer annihilation. It really could have been quite an opener; apart from the obvious rivalry between the teams that proved extremely one-sided last season, both teams spent the summer tweaking their rosters after disappointing 2011-12 campaigns. Anaheim missed the playoffs for the second time in three years but appeared to have righted the ship after replacing Randy Carlyle with Bruce Boudreau behind the bench; the Ducks were substantially better at controlling the flow of play with the ex-Caps coach running things. GM Bob Murray spent the offseason shuffling pieces on the blueline; Lubomir Visnovsky is now (reluctantly) on Long Island while stay-at-home bruiser Bryan Allen and elder statesman Sheldon Souray, who returned from AHL exile to excel in some of Dallas' toughest minutes last year, were signed as free agents. Like the Sharks, the Ducks' main issue remains forward depth although it's certainly a more pronounced issue in Anaheim than San Jose.
Jason Blake, with whom in the lineup the Ducks enjoyed incredible success that was probably more than a little coincidental but also instructive of how much better that team is when they have more than four real NHL forwards, remains on the free agent market and there's curiously been little indication Anaheim (or anyone else) is interested in signing him. That leaves the Ducks with four superstars up front in Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne along with a slew of essentially AHL-calibre talent (okay, Saku Koivu is better than AHL-level but he's also 37). Or at least it did until they swooped in and nabbed the Sharks' Daniel Winnik who should seriously help improve their possession game and penalty kill. Still, Anaheim needs a few of its many promising forward prospects like Kyle Palmieri, Devante Smith-Pelly, Emerson Etem and Peter Holland to make an impact or they'll run into the same depth issues they have for a few years now.
But that's enough of grieving and previewing a game that won't be played. Instead, let's turn to a game that was played between these two teams; over six years ago, sure, but at least it was real. And it was spectacular. On April 15th, 2006 the Sharks were putting the finishing touches on a magical regular season that saw them soar from the depths of the Western Conference to a 5th seed thanks to the midseason addition of one Joe Thornton. They had sewn up a playoff spot days before so the only thing left to play for was some postseason hardware. No, not the Stanley Cup. This was still the Sharks after all.
Heading into that day's action, Jaromir Jagr had 54 goals and 122 points on the year. The Sharks' Jonathan Cheechoo was at 53 goals while Thornton had notched 122 points. They had two games left on the schedule with which to overtake Jagr but, as it turned out, they would only need one. Twenty-one seconds into that Saturday afternoon matchup with the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Thornton scored to put himself in the Art Ross lead:
On a power play later in the period, Cheechoo tied Jagr:
And finally took the lead less than a minute into the second period on a decidedly Cheechoo-esque effort:
Now it could have easily ended there, with Cheechoo a goal ahead of Jagr, needing just one scoreless game from the Czech winger in order to clinch the Rocket Richard trophy. But of course it didn't. Cheechoo had already scored four hat tricks that season, two of which came against the Mighty Ducks. He made it a hat trick of hat tricks versus Anaheim, potting an empty-netter from his own blueline. The awkward-skating First Nations kid from Moose Factory, Ontario would be forever enshrined in the history books as a result:
Unfortunately, these are the kinds of moments that are being robbed from us as the lockout rages on with no real end in sight. Yes, it's just a game. Yes, there are so many more productive things we'll be able to accomplish with those two-and-half hours every other night. Yes, the NHL does not have a monopoly on the sport of hockey and no one's stopping you from lacing up your skates and heading to a nearby rink. But the magic that inevitably occurs when the greatest players in the world face one another on a nightly basis is something I'll miss, and that void sadly begins its expansion tonight.