We put a lot of stock in “being under the radar,” as though the defining metric for anything is whether or not we pay attention to them.
This, of course, is insane, but it is a tribute to our ability to define all things based on the narcissism that comes with believing the galactic central point. It’s a lot like “he or she is the best player I ever saw,” as though you’re the one who defines such things.
That said, I give you the San Jose Sharks, who are slowly sneaking onto the list of off-brand teams that could make a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Not deep enough to get them a parade or even a reprise of their 2016 Finals run, in all likelihood, but deeper than you thought when Joe Thornton crumpled two months ago.
It wasn’t just their 2-1 overtime win against Vegas, the NHL’s version of America’s Sweethearts, though that didn’t hurt. It wasn’t just their secondary metrics, which put them smack dab in the middle of the league, if not slightly below. And it isn’t as though they are radically different with Evander Kane, their trade deadline rental-with-an-option-to-buy.
No, San Jose has readjusted on the fly to deal with its changed circumstances, at least enough to establish one noteworthy advantage over its competitors.
They own their division more completely than any other team (20-4-3, and given the NHL’s playoff format they wouldn’t have to play outside their division until the Western Conference Final. And since their first two opponents will be Pacific Division opponents, the Sharks have a way to establish their mode of play that they would not have were they playing a team from the Central.
They match up best against Los Angeles, against which they are currently matched, with a convincing 3-1 record; against Anaheim, the other first-round alternative, they are also 3-1, though two of the wins and the loss occurred in a shootout.
Then if they get around that hurdle, they would draw Vegas, which is essentially The Team The Entire Hockey World Is Rooting For. Vegas has won two of the three matches with one to go, but each team has won an overtime game.
In other words, the Sharks’ first two opponents would likely be some combination of teams they have beaten seven times in eight regulation games, and are 3-2 in coin-flip games.
You’d take those odds, a hell of a lot sooner than a first-rounder against Nashville, Winnipeg or Minnesota, and maybe even Colorado. It is therefore helpful that the Sharks play each of them once before the regular season ends, to provide a bit more input for our pending miscalculations.
Series are not macro, after all, and matchups against individual teams matter more than records against whole divisions. Moreover, the Stanley Cup Playoffs do not necessarily go to the team with the best record but to the healthiest team with the goaltender playing the best. In that way, they more routinely represent your 2018 NCAA bracket than your NBA Playoff bracket, where the chalk prevails an inordinate amount of time.
Point is, the Sharks haven’t really inspired the outside world much – that under-the-radar thing again – but they represent the solid counterpuncher who ought to at the bare minimum punish the team that beats them sufficiently to make that team’s passage through the subsequent rounds considerably more difficult. That is more than anyone thought they would do once Thornton went down, but less than the level of notoriety of about eight other teams. They are not invisible, but they are hard to find.
But maybe if they hired a nonagenarian member of the clergy to hang around and offer scouting reports to Peter DeBoer, they could become media darlings, for what that may be worth. And let’s face it, you mock Sister Jean at your peril.