Back in the beginning – 1998 when Brad Stuart was drafted by the San Jose Sharks third overall – they were an up-and-coming NHL team, but still years removed from the team that perpetually made the playoffs and then disappointed when they got there.
The Sharks were the sexy Stanley Cup choice for so many years in the mid-2000s that eventually – when they came up short, year after frustrating playoff year – it didn't matter what they did, or how they looked, or who was in their lineup. No one was going to pick them to win. They were too soft, or past their prime, or just missing some indelible quality that separates winning teams from the rest.
The Los Angeles Kings, by contrast, seemed to have exactly the sort of qualities missing from Sharks' teams of previous years. They unexpectedly won the Stanley Cup last year and did it in convincing style – going 16-4, and getting out in front 3-0 in every series. The Kings weren't always the best team on the ice on any given night. They just usually ended up ahead on the score sheet, a neat trick if you can pull it off.
It was going that way again in these playoffs too, the Kings sweeping the final four games of their series against the St. Louis Blues before opening up an early 2-0 lead on the Sharks. It was a series teetering in the balance Saturday night when the Sharks pulled out a 2-1 victory over the Kings, thanks to a Logan Couture power-play goal in overtime.
The win kept the Sharks alive, but down 2-1 in the series, heading into Tuesday's fourth game.
Because of the two-day gap in the schedule, the Kings immediately flew home to L.A. following the game and will return to San Jose later Monday, regrouping after the loss. The Sharks, meanwhile, will try to keep it going on home-ice, where they are now a cumulative 20-2-5, regular season and playoff, this year.
The Sharks have had an identity shift since Stuart's early years in the organization. He was the centrepiece of the blockbuster trade with the Boston Bruins in which Joe Thornton arrived midway through the 2005-06 season, but returned this year as a free agent. His game has changed and morphed in the same the way San Jose's has.
"This year, it's changed a lot," Stuart said. "My first year, we had a lot of offensive skill and a lot of veteran guys who could put the puck in the net. Even a few years before this year, this was a high-powered team. I think maybe that's why we struggled a bit in the mid-part of the season – because we were trying to find that [defensive] identity – and we just kind of clicked with it.
"The way teams play now, it's very low-risk. There are a lot of pass-it-up-to-the-red-line-and-tip-it-in-and-try-to-get-it-back types of plays. Every team's doing it and if you don't it, you're going to get beat."
Stuart described the NHL as a copycat league and though he didn't cite the Kings specifically, there is little doubt that the L.A. model is the one that all but a handful of teams are following. Stuart noted that the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks, by the virtue of their offensive depth, can play a more open brand of hockey. Everybody else adheres to a conservative, risk-averse style and tries to capitalize on their special-teams opportunities.
San Jose now has five wins in these playoffs and three – Saturday night's victory over the Kings, plus their last two victories over the Vancouver Canucks – can be traced directly to power-play success.
Also: The decision to play 6-foot-5 Brent Burns at forward gives the Sharks the same sort of big-bodied presence up front that allowed L.A. to grind teams down in last year's playoffs.
"Whatever seems to be working, other teams are going to copy it, and a lot of times, the teams that don't, fall behind – until something else comes along," Stuart said.
The Sharks finished this year with the sixth-best defensive record in the league and Antti Niemi is a finalist for the Vézina Trophy, awarded annually to the best goaltender in the league. Much of their defensive gains can be attributed to a single factor – improvement on the penalty kill. They went from 30th in the league two years ago (73.3 success rate) to sixth (85.0). New assistant coach Larry Robinson, hired away from the New Jersey Devils, received much of the credit for that development.
"It starts with our goaltending," Stuart said. "He's been awesome for us all year. When you have that confidence in your goalie, things start to happen easier. Nobody's clenching their sticks because they don't have that trust in their goalie. I don't care what anybody says. If you don't trust your goalie, bad things can happen. You start overcompensating. Everybody in here doesn't have to worry about that. It's important."
As for Robinson?
"He's been great. Larry keeps it loose back there, relaxed, but at the same time, he lets you know when you did something wrong. Not only that, but how can you do better? What can you do to fix it? What should you have done? He's not going to beat it into you. He's going to let you know in a way that makes you feel good about going back on the ice. He's a good presence to have behind us."