Passion. Urgency. Hatred. Love. Contempt. Desperation. Beauty.
Occasionally we get to witness competitors develop a rivalry while they are at the top of their games, and it elicits the above emotions, plus a hundred more.
Simply put, everything is on the line in this season’s series between the San Jose Sharks and the Detroit Red Wings. Both have Stanley Cup aspirations, and secretly both would tell you that each other are the biggest obstacles to achieving that goal. Sure, no player, coach, or front office member would be so honest as to publicly write off any other team, but make no mistake about it, these teams have prepared for each other all season.
Since last summer when Chicago was forced to dump many of its role players, including goaltender Antti Niemi who of course is now backstopping San Jose, both the Sharks and Red Wings knew they were on the short list of western conference favorites. In fact, the only other two teams on that list just played each other, with Vancouver expending a lot of energy in knocking out the defending champion Blackhawks. And while Vancouver was probably the most pegged team to win the west to start the season, I don’t think the Canucks strike the least bit of fear into either of tonight’s combatants’ hearts.
Detroit and San Jose have previously met four times in the playoffs, with the Sharks taking the first (1994) and the last (2010). Detroit got revenge in 1995, and also defeated the Sharks in six games in 2007 before falling to eventual Cup champion Anaheim. Red Wings fans can take some hope out of the fact that the last time their team got a shot at San Jose the year after being eliminated by them, the Wings swept the Sharks out in the conference semifinals in that 1995 series. The Sharks won’t only be trying to reverse that history, but it can also be noted that both times San Jose has defeated Detroit, the Sharks have gone on to lose the following series.
Aside from having very similar playoff experiences against each other, the Sharks and Red Wings possess very different playoff histories against the rest of the league. Detroit has famously won 11 Stanley Cups, and captain Nicklas Lidstrom has been a stalwart in the last four of them. This Red Wings team has essentially won one Cup, in 2008. They nearly won another in 2009, but Lidstrom’s shot to tie Game 7 was turned aside by Marc Andre Fleury with a couple seconds left on the clock. The Sharks, on the other hand, have gained a reputation as playoff disappointments. This billing is perhaps a bit overblown, as many times they are defeated by a better team, but they have had some donkey jogs as recently as 2008 and ’09. The Sharks are 0-2 lifetime in the western conference finals, losing in both 2006 and ’10. The Red Wings are 6-2 in the same round since 1995.
But many people, including myself, have seen something different in this season’s version of the Sharks. They started out poorly, but came up from tenth place to grab another top two seed in the west. Many people cited this upward trend as a reason why San Jose should prove to be more battle tested this year, but it is worth pointing out that it was the Red Wings who had to battle their way up the standings last year and suffered through a tough opening series, and that equated to a loss to the Sharks in which the Wings looked tired. It could be possible that the Sharks are the more tired team this time around, as the Wings seem to have been resting forever coming into this series.
But the real reason this series is must-see television (or live in-person hockey) is that these teams know this could be their last golden opportunity to win the Stanley Cup. It’s long been assumed that Lidstrom is playing his final season, and the Red Wings’ core isn’t getting any younger. In fact, Lidstrom’s retirement itself might be enough to downgrade the Wings to the B table of the western conference. The Sharks aren’t a whole lot different though. The fans and management have shown great patience through all of the playoff disappointments, but there’s no telling how long the Sharks will continue to sit near the top of the west with this current group. The big three forwards of Marleau, Thornton and Heatley have gotten some young help recently in the form of Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, but championship windows usually are open for a finite amount of time. The Sharks’ window has been open now every season but one since 2002. Their star players are in the prime of their careers, with Thornton and Marleau at 31 years of age, and Heatley at 30. And the feeling in the locker room should be that it’s now or never. Nobody on earth thinks the Blackhawks aren’t going to improve next year, and they are led by a group of players that already have a Stanley Cup and can’t grow facial hair yet. Additionally, the Sedin twins seem to be improving in Vancouver every year, and so logically that team should get tougher to beat in time also. That is of course assuming that the Canucks hold onto their physical players and don’t revert back to the team that saw the “Sedin Sisters” consistently without playoff cover.
So as the Wings and Sharks take the ice tonight and look across the red line at each other, they will see the biggest obstacle and threat to achieving their professional goals now and forever, and that should make for a series full of passion and urgency. The teams built a rivalry last year that should develop into contempt by the first intermission of Game 2, and hatred by Game 4. Each team will have to fully trust itself and play each shift like it will be their last, because if they do not, they may not find themselves in the discussion again. And that realization should incite some fear. Not fear of the other team, or of the task at hand, but fear that this golden opportunity may never come again. Both teams must seize the moment. Only one team can win, but both the Sharks and Red Wings should give us the best theater that these NHL playoffs will have to offer.