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Why the Sharks are the new favorite in the Western Conference

From the start of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Western Conference has been wide open.

Overall, it was conceivable that any team could make a run. Even the heavily favored Dallas Stars dropped two games to the Minnesota Wild and pulled out a hotly-contested Game 6 win to finally take the series.

In today’s parity-driven NHL, teams win games by the slimmest of margins in the playoffs and it’s not surprising if a lower-seeded team makes a deep run in the playoffs.

Going into the postseason in the West, the Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks were considered the three favorites. The Blackhawks and Kings had alternated Stanley Cups since 2012 and the Ducks made the Western Conference Final last season. 

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All three were eliminated, which means it’s time to re-examine the group of teams competing to make the Stanley Cup Final out of the West. The Stars, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators all remain. But out of the four only one played airtight hockey through the first-round and looked primed to erase past disappointments and finally make a run to the Stanley Cup Final.

That team was the Sharks, a group that will draw the Predators in the second-round.

Here are five reasons why the Sharks are now the team to beat in the Western Conference along with the take of an NHL pro scout.

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1. Joe Thornton

The Sharks have arguably the best center left in the West in Joe Thornton. He only had three points in five games against the Kings, but that’s a shallow way of looking at his production. His CF% rel was a plus-6.07 in that series, just behind linemate Tomas Hertl for tops amongst Sharks forwards. War on Ice points out that Thornton has been a positive puck possession player relative to the rest of his Sharks teammates every postseason, with the exception of 2009-10 where he was a minus-5.1.

His game doesn’t just involve offense. He’s also turned into a strong defensive player 5-on-5 and won the head-to-head match-up with Kings do-it-all center Anze Kopitar last series. Only Stars winger Jamie Benn has rivaled Thornton’s all-around brilliance, but wings don’t touch all parts of the game like centers. Strong two-way middlemen tend to turn the tide in a playoff series, and Thornton’s the best remaining in the West.

Scout’s take: “He’s a big body with small man hands. He has a great hockey IQ. He’s playing both ways and not to say he didn’t before. At times there were questions about his willingness or desire to play a full North/South game.”

“From what I’ve seen so far, he’s just a big, physical hockey player that has good IQ, good skills, can make plays and plays all situations. It seems like right now after one round he’s a very motivated player to try to take this team as far as he can in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.”

FILE - In this March 24, 2016, file photo, San Jose Sharks' Joe Thornton (19) sakes during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Edmonton Oilers in San Jose, Calif. Thornton has had a career renaissance at age 36 to help lead San Jose back to the playoffs. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

2. Powerful power play

San Jose’s power play tipped the series for them against the Kings and was potent enough to overcome LA’s 5-on-5 advantage. Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Brent Burns, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski have each been All-Stars at some point in their careers, and all blend together perfectly on the first power play grouping. Pavelski and Burns have two of the best one-timers in hockey and Thornton is one of the top passers in NHL history.

All five can enter the zone, set up and zip the puck around before they find an opening on the goaltender. Few teams left have that type of luxury. The Sharks finished the first-round of the playoffs hitting at 23.8 percent with the man-advantage. In Game 4 they went 3-for-4 on the power play, which set up their Game 5 series clinching win.

Scout’s take: It’s tough to score goals in the regular season, it’s even tougher to score goals in the playoffs, especially as you move on. When you have an opportunity on the power play, that’s very key for any team. If you can get one per-game and you’re getting two, three, four chances per-game and you get one and you stop the other team with your penalty kill, that’s a huge swing and advantage as a team.

3. All the right moves

After San Jose eliminated the Kings, Sharks coach Peter DeBoer pointed out how prior San Jose teams that flamed out in the playoffs didn’t have the same type of depth as this group. Because of Doug Wilson’s offseason signings and mid-season trades, the Sharks are one of the few teams left in the playoffs that can roll four lines with ease.

San Jose’s trios are also varied enough to play different types of games. Thornton’s grouping has speed with Pavelski, and a grind factor with Thornton and Tomas Hertl. Couture’s second line has skill with Joonas Donskoi on one wing and power with Joel Ward on another.

Marleau, who would be a first-line winger on most teams, centers a speedy third line with Melker Karlsson and Matt Nieto. The Sharks’ fourth line has enough grind and two-way leanings to not get burned. Each line scored at least one goal in the last series. If teams want to play the ‘match-up game’ against the Sharks, it will be tough to figure out how to handle all four of their groups.

Scout’s take: When you put a guy like Patrick Marleau on your third line, it kind of is a testament to your depth as a team at the forward position. Patty can skate and he’s still strong on his skates. He’s a little bit like Thornton. He has pretty good IQ and can play in all situations.

That gives so many options, whether you’re matching Thornton’s line against the other team’s top lines, but you can go ahead and give Thornton a break and put Marleau out there and give the fourth line of the other team certain shifts.

It allows you some flexibility on your match-ups. If a line’s caught out there on an icing and the other team can put their top line out there, you can still feel comfortable. That’s a big advantage San Jose has. 

4. The DeBoer effect

Sharks players have bought into DeBoer more than they did to former coach Todd McLellan in recent years. DeBoer, who made a Stanley Cup Final with the New Jersey Devils in 2012, has given the aging players more off days, which has kept his core fresh.

After the second period in Game 5 against the Kings when LA scored three goals to tie the contest at 3-3, DeBoer delivered a speech to settle his team down. They scored three third period goals to oust LA 6-3. 

Scout’s take: He’s taken a lesser skilled team in New Jersey into the Final. He’s a good hockey coach that knows the game extremely well and for whatever reason has them buying in. When you have a team buying in, it doesn’t matter if it’s the perfect system or whatever it may be, but if you have everyone pulling in the same direction that goes a long way to the success of the club. 

5. Brent Burns is a unique offensive weapon

Before the first-round, we asked if Burns was a liability or a weapon. He was a revelation for the Sharks, leading the team with eight points in five games. Burns played mostly mistake-free hockey and was on ice for 10 goals scored – versus six goals against. The Kings’ and their defense-first system were the most likely opponent to solve Burns’ attack-friendly mentality, and even they had no answer for him

Scout’s take: He’s such an offensive threat that you can have your forward matchup line out there and feel comfortable with your third pair D (against the forwards). But when you have your third pair D out there and Brent Burns is all of a sudden a fourth forward and now he’s creating stuff, that’s tough.

On top of that he has a great shot and can get it in from the point a lot too. He presents so many different problems for them to defend in their own end and give San Jose a great offensive option.

SAN JOSE, CA - APRIL 20: Brent Burns #88 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after he scored a goal in the second period against the Los Angeles Kings in Game Four of the Western Conference First Round during the NHL 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center on April 20, 2016 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Opposing viewpoint

The Sharks do have weaknesses and the right team can exploit them. Goaltender Martin Jones is in his first prolonged playoff run and wasn’t tested much against LA. He had a 2.18 goal-against average and .912 save percentage. 

“A guy like Jones, like any player that hasn’t been in the playoffs or gone deeper in the playoffs, I think they’ll recognize as you move on from one round to the next … it’s hard to believe the hockey can get ramped up more than it does and it gets harder and harder and mistakes and bad goals and bade penalties get magnified that much more because of how it is,” the scout said. “As tight and hard as it is to score goals through 82 games it gets harder each game and each round goes on. “

Though the eyeball test says the Sharks beat the Kings soundly, they were worse 5-on-5 per War on Ice with a 45.6 CF%. If San Jose doesn’t convert on power plays, this could mean trouble for the Sharks. Also, even though San Jose has shown forward balance this postseason, they were mostly a one-line group in the regular season. Will that become a problem again?

The Sharks were 18-20-3 at home this year, and have home ice advantage against the Predators in this round of the playoffs.

There’s this longstanding view that the Sharks just can’t get it done in the playoffs – which will follow them around until they actually can go deeper than a conference final.

Really the Sharks just won one round, and no matter how impressive they looked there’s still a long way to go for them.

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