The longest (unofficial) preseason in NHL history comes to a close this Saturday when the San Jose Sharks play the Phoenix Coyotes with the Western Conference championship on the line. From there the Sharks will have four to five days to prepare for the games that really matter, the 2010 playoffs, which is all that anybody in San Jose has been thinking about all season long.
"This year, it's all about playoffs," Sharks' captain Rob Blake said. "You have a team that, at the beginning of the year, you know you're going to be in the playoffs. Now everybody wants to talk just about the playoffs, and that's fine with us. We put that on ourselves, too."
The Sharks are the NHL's perennial postseason underachievers, and last year was worse than most. After winning the President's Trophy last year as the NHL's top regular-season team, they lost the opening round in a monumental upset to the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks.
For San Jose, everything done in the interim - the trade for Dany Heatley, the revamped supporting cast, the switch in captaincy to Blake - was done with a single goal: to exorcise the demons of playoffs past, and prove, once and for all, that they are capable of winning the big one.
For that, the pressure drifts to the Jumbo one, Joe Thornton, the amiable, easy-going playmaker who perennially finds himself first or second among the NHL's assists leaders and needs to enhance that playoff résumé. Thornton won a gold medal with Canada's 2010 men's Olympic hockey team (as did fellow Sharks Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle), but played a comparatively limited role when the medal round began.
Thornton remembers a conversation with Steve Yzerman, executive director of the Olympic team, relating specifically to expectations.
Yzerman reminded Thornton that he, too, had his playoff bona fides questioned early in his career, and it stopped only when the Detroit Red Wings finally did get over the playoff hump, in 1997, after years of coming close.
It is the same scenario at play in San Jose. The Sharks have averaged 108 points a season in the four years since the lockout ended, but never got past the second round.
"He [Yzerman]pretty much said, some players have the blessing of winning the Cup when they're young men," Thornton said. "He just shared his experiences, about how some of us have to wait a little longer to get a chance to win. He said, 'you just have to believe in yourself and your teammates and you'll eventually win it.' "
The Sharks essentially made over their entire supporting cast to get both younger and grittier. Heatley's goal-scoring touch adds another dimension, and Marleau is in the midst of his best scoring year yet, with 43.
Questions will be asked about goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who followed that terrible night against Canada at the Olympics with just a so-so March.
"We know what's being said out there," Heatley said. "As a player, you want that pressure. We want to show people we can do it and we want to show ourselves that we can do it."
According to Blake, who previously won a championship with the Colorado Avalanche, the Sharks' organization has shown extreme patience with its core group, but eventually patience runs out if success is not achieved.
"If you look at the window, not everybody's going to be on the same team a year from now," Blake said. "I think guys in here understand that, too. This is a great opportunity, but you're not always going to be in that situation."
In some ways, it may be that San Jose's win-one, lose-one pattern since the Olympic break is actually a blessing in disguise, lowering expectations to the point where the Sharks are no longer everybody's favourite to win. Sometimes when the pressure drops, a team can play a more relaxed and instinctive game.
Thornton isn't buying the argument, however.
"I don't think it lessens the pressure, to be honest, because we expect to do big things in this locker room," Thornton said. "Maybe externally, the pressure may not be on, but internally, it's always going to be there, very high."