Don't look now, but those perennial bridesmaids, the San Jose Sharks, are doing their best to seduce you into thinking maybe this year their playoff results will be different than all those others when they went in as favourites and eventually fell on their faces.
Everyone who goes out on a limb - either for fantasy hockey reasons or just because we're required to make our postseason picks - has pondered the Sharks as a possible Stanley Cup champion. They are one of the most accomplished regular season teams in the league over this past decade - accumulating 99 or more points in eight of the past nine seasons, and are Pacific Division champs for the fourth year in a row after routing the Los Angeles Kings Monday night.
Remember them? The same Sharks that, despite all those accomplishments, have yet to play in the Stanley Cup final. Those Sharks.
San Jose took a deliberate step sideways last summer, parting ways with goaltender Evgeni Nabokov on the heels of a conference championship sweep by the eventual champions from Chicago. Stalwart defenceman Rob Blake retired, leaving them without his on- and off-ice presence. It took the Sharks a long time to sort it out and in early January, as the Toronto Maple Leafs were passing through California, it didn't look as if it would happen at all. San Jose lost six games in a row and "lost" was the appropriate adjective to describe how they were playing.
But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. San Jose designated Antti Niemi as its No. 1 goalie, after alternating him with Anterro Nittymaki in the early going, and they have been the NHL's most accomplished team ever since. They are a staggering 26-4-4 in that stretch, with Niemi getting the start in all 34 games (and winning every game but one over that time - Nittymaki picked it up in relief).
All of the key San Jose offensive contributors - new captain Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau - will not match last year's output, but collectively, they are a difficult team to play against at the moment: Big, strong and aggressive on the forecheck, they will lean on your at every opportunity and have been winning simply by wearing teams down. An unheralded contributor is defenceman Doug Murray, who partners Dan Boyle on a regular basis, and, according to colour commentator Drew Remenda, tips the scales at 250 pounds. That's Dustin Byfuglien territory, and Murray adds a far greater defensive conscience. Murray is a key part of their emerging heavyweight identity and will be part of the primary shutdown pair.
The only lingering cloud is that one of the heavyweights up front. Ryan Clowe, in the midst of a career season supporting rookie-of-the-year candidate Logan Couture, left the Kings game Monday with an undisclosed injury and didn't return. Ben Eager occasionally filled in the rest of the way. Clowe's loss for any extended period would be damaging, but the Sharks appear to have enough depth up front to compensate.
I started picking the Sharks to win the Stanley Cup pre-lockout and my standard radio line was that I'd do it every year until they actually won. That strategy grew old after a while and I'm sure others who were on the bandwagon and burned by other editions of this team will never, ever pick them again. But admit it. Based on the way they're playing right now, and with the only goalie in the Western Conference that actually has a Stanley Cup championship on his resume, it's tempting, really tempting.
Could this be the Sharks' year? Could be.