Saturday, May 15, 2010
One of these teams is not like the others.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are halfway through, and sixteen teams have been whittled down to four. In the East, the Montreal Canadiens will face the Philadelphia Flyers, who just came back from losing the first three games of a best-of-seven series to the Boston Bruins only to win the last four and the whole series. In the West, it's the top-seeded San Jose Sharks versus the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Sharks are the odd team out. You can even see it in their logo, the only one that spells the name out and the only one without a circled r registration. The Sharks lack history. Montreal's history goes back to before World War I was over and Chicago put a team on the ice since before my dad was born. This is the 43rd season the Broad Street Bullies have played in the City of Brotherly Love. Next year, the Sharks will turn twenty.
Here's another way the Sharks aren't like the other teams. Right now, they are the best team in hockey. They are not just the top seed in the West, they won the President's Trophy, the award for having the best record in the league this year. The NHL has been giving out this Trophy since the league's inception, but has always been considered small potatoes in comparison to winning Lord Stanley's Cup.
Here's another way the Sharks are different. They are the only team to have never won the Stanley Cup of the final four in contention. The Canadiens had decades of dominance when the league had only six teams. They won the first of their 24 Stanley Cups in 1916 before the league existed and won their most recent in 1993. The Blackhawks were the sad sack team of the Original Six, and their last Cup was hoisted in 1961. The Flyers have won twice in 1974 and 1975, back when Bobby Clarke was their big star and leading the league in penalty minutes was their most successful tactic.
There's still plenty of hockey to be played, but this could be the Sharks' year. They have been the top seed in the West before, and they have always found ways to disappoint in the playoffs. Given their history, many experts picked them to lose their series with the Detroit Red Wings in the conference semi-final. The Red Wings are the top franchise in the sport over the past two decades, and the smart money said that the Red Wings knew how to win and the Sharks knew how to lose. The smart money was wrong, and the San Jose beat Detroit easily, 4 games to 1.
For Bay Area sports fans, the Sharks have been the only quality professional franchise in the four major sports. The A's have been the best cheap team in baseball, but that means lean years and fat years and the rich kids stealing their lunch money when the A's are lucky enough to make the playoffs. The Giants are doing everything they can to forget that the best home run hitter in history played left field for them for the past two decades. The 49ers are rebuilding and the Warriors and Raiders just plain suck. The Sharks are the only franchise in the bio-region that consistently make the playoffs and get the advantages the high seeds enjoy. If they continue to play as well as they have in the early rounds, the Bay Area will have its first major pro sports champion since the glory days of the San Francisco 49ers ended back in 1995.