SAN JOSE – After the New Jersey Devils made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012 under head coach Pete DeBoer, they didn’t really have a chance to experience that so-called Stanley Cup hangover the following season. The ensuing lockout, along with the departure of captain and heartbeat Zach Parise in the offseason, made that run a bit of a distant memory by the time NHL hockey resumed in mid-January, 2013.
DeBoer has repeatedly cautioned to his current Sharks group that they are now viewed differently by other teams around the league after what happened last season. The message from opposing head coaches is a simple one; they need only to remind their group that they’re going up against the defending Western Conference champs, a team that hasn’t changed its roster all that much from last June.
Joel Quenneville, the head coach of the Blackhawks, knows plenty about what it’s like to resume play the following autumn after a long run the season prior. Chicago has won three Stanley Cups since 2010, and although the circumstances and the teams are always different, Quenneville believes that a hangover is a tangible thing.
“Every game is challenging, teams are ready for you to begin the season,” Quenneville said last Wednesday before the Sharks-Blackhawks game. “[You have to find] a way to get momentum going, and you don’t want to play [like it’s] game 82 to get in, because it’s a long grind.
“I just think that guys eventually get it, that it’s time to play for keeps and it’s meaningful games throughout the year. … I’d say that first 20 games is probably the biggest challenge.”
Jonathan Toews, Chicago’s captain, has been a part of all three Blackhawks championships.
“It definitely is difficult early in the season when you have teams coming off of a really long offseason, and they’re fresh and they’re excited and eager to redeem themselves for maybe falling short of their expectations the year before,” Toews said. “In that regard, yeah, it’s tough.”
When Quenneville’s “20 games” theory was passed on to DeBoer, he didn’t argue.
“When I consider the source, he would know probably better than any coach in the last 10 years what that’s like,” DeBoer said. “It makes sense to me. … I think every group is different. I think it takes you some time to realize that every team you’re playing is bringing their best level.”
The Sharks have played 22 games this season, posting a 12-9-1 record, and based on some of their recent efforts during a five-game homestand – including a 2-1 win over Quenneville’s Blackhawks – they are looking more and more like the team that surged up the standings in the second half of last season, culminating in that exciting run to the NHL’s final round.
On nights earlier this season, though, they didn’t appear all that interested in competing for a full 60 minutes, and the results showed in losses to Arizona, Calgary and Carolina, in particular. The power play is still struggling to score, as is the team in general, with 2.36 goals-per game (23rd in the NHL).
The team defense, penalty kill and the goaltending have been solid, but that desire to play a hard, aggressive, forechecking game in which they get to the front of the net to create those second and third opportunities has only showed up in spurts. The Sharks are the only team in the NHL that hasn’t scored more than four goals in a game yet.
A Tuesday night in Carolina in front of 8,000 fans, of course, is a far cry from playing in front of sold out crowds at SAP Center in the Stanley Cup Final just five months ago. There is essentially no atmosphere to speak of, and the energy has to come from within.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, himself a Stanley Cup winner with Dallas in 1999 and who has been a part of plenty of long playoff runs, said that recreating that energy is not easy this time of year for teams that found success last spring.
“It looks like the teams that jumped out, especially in the east, have recreated new energy in the group and are having success. In the West, we’re all fighting for that right now,” Hitchcock said.
“We’re all trying to find energy, we’re all trying to find chemistry. Some teams are going at it slowly, and some teams are going at it a little bit quicker, but at the end of the day, you can’t rely on what happened last year. None of us can. We have to go and recreate.”
Logan Couture understands what Hitchcock is getting at.
“I think he’s correct. You go that far, it’s so much emotion and so tough to get there, and the season restarts,” Couture said.
“It is tough to recreate that, but it’s our job. That’s what we’ve got to do.”