For a brief time, when it became clear he wasn’t going to play for Canada at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, the San Jose Sharks’ Joe Thornton thought about spending the break in Switzerland, where his wife’s family lives. But then the reality settled in – that Thornton is 34 now, and the time off would be better spent resting. So instead, they took a short flight down the coast to Cabo San Lucas and did what a lot of other families do in February. They took a mid-winter holiday.
“It was great,” Thornton said. “It’s probably the only time I’ve had [mid-season] rest in 15 years. Being on a West Coast team, we’re travelling so much, it’s just nice to meet my family again. It was needed, I think.”
Needed, and perhaps it might even tilt the playoff balance San Jose’s way for a change. Coming out of the Olympic break was akin to starting a second season for Thornton. But with the playoffs starting Thursday against the Los Angeles Kings, the fact that Thornton and defenceman Dan Boyle had some time off (as well as centre Logan Couture, who was recovering from a broken hand), the Sharks may be among the freshest of the Stanley Cup contenders.
“There’s a lot of miles on those players,” assessed Sharks’ coach Todd McLellan, referring to both Thornton and the 37-year-old Boyle. “They’re not old players, but Jumbo played his 1,200th game the other day and he’s been moving around that big body for a lot of years so … the break, I do believe, helped him, both physically and mentally. It was probably the same for Danny. It’s been a tough year for Boyler because he just got going and then that injury [concussed on a hit from behind by Max Lapierre] really set him back. To get into the groove again since the Olympic break, he’s been much better, so it’s obviously helped him.
“And on the other side of the coin, the guys that went to Sochi have played pretty well for us. I was really concerned about [Joe] Pavelski and [Patrick] Marleau, but they’ve been able to keep their games going. So the Olympics worked well for us.”
San Jose’s nucleus hasn’t changed much over these past few years and after the Detroit Red Wings, they have been the NHL’s most consistent franchise, having made the playoffs every year since 2004. For years, San Jose was everybody’s pre-playoff Stanley Cup favourite – and though they made it to the conference final three times in the past decade, they could never come out of the West.
So what makes the Sharks believe they can do this year what has eluded them in the past?
“The belief system in the team is getting stronger as we go on,” answered McLellan. “That is a big thing for us. The understanding of how games are going to be played, we are continually learning that. If we take the approach against L.A. that we’re going to beat them 5-4, it’s not going to work. The acceptance of playing that way – of Jumbo [Thornton] some nights maybe not playing 20 or 21 minutes, but giving you a good hard 17.
“Things like that are ever-growing and ever-evolving and hopefully, it takes us a little further down the road each year. So does it have to be a lot different than last year? The jersey and the names don’t, but the mindset has to evolve.”
Once again, the series will pit L.A.’s size and strength against San Jose’s speed and willingness to push back, which they demonstrated during the final regular-season meeting between the two teams. The Sharks are collectively so fast in the way they play and move the puck up the ice that they are able to put teams on their heels.
“Don’t you wish you could take fans and put them at ice level?” asked McLellan. “At some point, there’s going to be seats sold above the ice – you move up and down the ice the way they move the cameras in a football game so you can feel the speed of the game.
“Because we go, four or five times a year, to pre-scout games on the road and if you go up to the press box, you think, ‘this is so slow.’ It’s nothing what it’s like at ice level. We try to play a fast game. We try to play a north-south game. But the other thing is, what is the definition of speed? People say ‘fast’ and people think it’s just foot speed. We talk a lot about dominoes – because dominoes move fast, and they’re close to each other and they have good support. It’s an analogy the players buy into. They can picture it – that they have the ability to use each other for support, if that makes any sense.”
It does. And the best news of all is the teams flat-out don’t like each other. Three playoff meetings in four years will add that necessary level of animosity right from the start.
“The West is going to be deadly,” Thornton predicted. “We’re going to play these guys [the Kings] and if we beat them, we’re going to play Anaheim. It’s going to be great hockey.”