(Originally published at Inside Hockey)
Thursday, the San Jose Sharks defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1. Based on the Sharks’ recent performance, that should not have surprised anyone. The Sharks were sure to bring their A game against the top team in the East, after embarrassing themselves in a loss to the Florida Panthers. The 2014-15 Sharks don’t always lose to weaker teams and beat strong ones, but lately that is their pattern.
Being beaten by the current Chicago Blackhawks, even badly, is nothing to panic about. Even if the Blackhawks struggled early this season, they have a roster of skilled, seasoned players with a nose for the win. So even when the Sharks lost there, through a poor first period, that game could be written off as an acceptable loss.
Any one loss can be acceptable. Losing to the Buffalo Sabres, the banged-up Blue Jackets, or the Florida Panthers, a loss to one of those should not cause panic. But losing to all three is certainly something to be concerned about. The Sharks are swimming in dangerous waters, dropping games to teams they should be able to beat at a fairly predictable rate. So that is their real challenge: winning the games they should win.
None of this is news to the Sharks, it is a problem they are very aware of. Before this road trip, defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic put it this way:
It’s the teams that in the standings are a little lower, you’re like “well, we might be able to get by on a B game,” but you can’t in the NHL. They come to work, even if they don’t have the skill, the talent that you do, they’ll come to work, and Buffalo, Columbus did that, outplayed us and won the game. It’s those games that you need to get up for. The ones against Anaheim, LA, you’ll get up for it even if you don’t think you will.
Even if the Sharks consistently drop games to teams below them in the standings, of which there are fewer by the day, they have no guarantee of picking up points against the higher ranked teams. This is why the loss to Chicago, even as the second game in two days, even with the valiant late push, is less acceptable than it should be. The loss itself is not the problem, the way they lost is. After that game, head coach Todd McLellan said:
I saw a team that wasn’t prepared to compete, lacked catalysts, guys that were going to settle the game down and make us play the right way, and as a result we’re down by three. We adjust and talk about it between the first and second, then we start to play the way we have to play against that group to win. But I was really disappointed in our group in the first period.
It was a microcosm of what the team has done in seasons past: starting slowly, only to end the season playing so well that one had to wonder why they started so very slowly.
It is difficult to sound the alarm so early in the season for any team– except the Blue Jackets, the Panthers, the Sabres, the Oilers, and probably the Avalanche. Their alarms should have rolled over to the snooze feature by now. But most teams have not fallen out of it, or earned a playoff spot yet.
The Sharks are still in it, every point still matters. A lack of enthusiasm for getting points is not acceptable. The Sharks know very well how it goes if you scramble at the end of the season to make it into the playoffs. You end up with too many injuries, unsettled confidence and mental fatigue that all but dooms a playoff run. There are very few players on the Sharks roster who do not know this from personal experience, it truly is unacceptable to be repeating the pattern.
Before the team left on this road trip, I asked head coach Todd McLellan if it is a bigger challenge for this team to face teams that don’t look like tough opponents. He answered:
I don’t want to answer yes, but the answer could be yes. But we need to figure out where we fit first. Forget about where the other teams fit. What are we right now, where do we stand? Are we an upper-echelon team, are we a playoff team, are we squeaking in, are we a non… we’ve got to figure all of that out before we start evaluating what other teams do. I think sometimes we have difficulty with that.
That put a different spin on the question. In the wake of promises that change would come, after the letters were removed, reshuffled, put back where they started, what kind of team are the San Jose Sharks now? they have been perennial playoff contenders, frequent also-rans. It is almost inconceivable that the Sharks would not be there, yet again, battling it out in the post-season. At this point in the year, the middle of the pack is a safe enough place to be. The Sharks have not had a great start, but they have not crippled themselves either.
Beating the Anaheim Ducks, or the Tampa Bay Lightning, that is not easy but it is easy to get up for. Beating them, all that tells us about the Sharks is that they are fine, they can do this. They just have to do it, like always.
The most competitive personalities often do well in a crisis, they thrive under pressure that wilts the timid. They do very well with outside motivation. The hardest thing there is for any of us, NHL players included, is finding internal motivation. It is harder to get up for games that do not matter, or to face opponents you know you can beat.
It goes beyond parity, it comes back to every man’s grief, the difficulty of generating your own pressure. The good news is, the pressure will come. It might already be here, as the Sharks slip in the standings, as other teams are pulling it together. The question still remains, will the pressure be enough? If it turns out that these Sharks don’t fit in with the top teams anymore, Doug Wilson’s tomorrow team may have a tougher today than they expected.