Sharks' last chance to show some teeth

But regular seasons have not been a problem for the Sharks. It is what happens afterwards in the play-offs that has haunted the franchise.

It sounds trite, but there is no other way to put it: everything is going swimmingly for the San Jose Sharks. Of course, that is to be expected. It is the regular season, after all, a time of year when San Jose traditionally rule the NHL. And the 2009-10 campaign is no different, with San Jose sitting in first place in the league and looking good to defend the Presidents' Trophy they won last year for finishing the regular season with the most points in the NHL.

But regular seasons have not been a problem for the Sharks. It is what happens afterwards that has haunted the franchise. San Jose's post-seasons typically begin with much promise and hyperbole, only to fall apart embarrassingly quickly. In last year's version of San Jose's annual play-off collapse, the top-seeded Sharks lost in the first round to West Coast rivals Anaheim, as the No 8-ranked Ducks overcame San Jose in six games.

For Sharks fans, it was simply the latest spin on a tired old tale that goes something like this: San Jose dominate from October to April, winning 50-plus games and amassing 100-plus points to earn a top berth in the Western Conference standings, only to lose to a "lesser" team in the early rounds of the play-offs. The Sharks have all the pieces for a Stanley Cup run, but they have failed to even come close to mounting a championship charge.

You know how everyone loves an underdog? Well, it turns out the reverse is true, too: everyone hates an under-achiever. At least, sports fans hate an under-achieving team that tease with their talent only to turn tail and serve as the coulda-woulda-shoulda team year after year. The question now is, will the Sharks fool us again or are they finally, fitfully, fatefully ready to rewrite history rather than repeat it? Stop me if you have heard this one before, but this is really the last chance for this core of Sharks players. Seriously.

For starters, six of the team, including the NHL leading scorer Patrick Marleau, the veteran defenceman and team captain Rob Blake and the goalie Evgeni Nabokov are all up for unrestricted free agency this summer. So if San Jose do not get the Stanley Cup job done - or at least make a very convincing case - look for the Sharks GM Doug Wilson to dismantle the team and start again. Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley, the two linchpin forwards, and young defencemen such as Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Douglas Murray might survive the purge, but virtually every other player could be shown the door. It would be an ignominious end for a group that had legitimate aspirations for long-term contention.

Thornton, in particular, is under pressure to produce a post-season to remember rather than another forgettable spring. One of the NHL's best forwards - as usual in contention for the scoring title - Thornton has yet to demonstrate his dominance in the play-offs. He has had excuses, but at some point it becomes all about the end result. Why will it be different this time around? Marleau's offensive break out and the arrival of Heatley in San Jose are good places to start, and Wilson's general toughening up of the roster - especially among the third and fourth-line depth forwards - is another move that was made with the post-season in mind.

In net, Nabokov knows that if he does not get it done this time, he has probably seen the last of sunny San Jose. Perennially one of the NHL's top goalies, Nabokov has to play in the post-season like he does in October. If he does, the Sharks will be together forever in NHL history. If he does not, the Sharks will look very different in a few short months.