by Mike Chen on 11/06/08 at 02:00 PM ET
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. That is, if you replace “Virginia” with “Disgusted Hockey Fan” and “Santa Claus” with “Chance at Being Really Good.”
Had a terrible October? No worries. There’s still a chance that your team, as hopeless as they seem, can wind up in the conference final. Presenting the ultimate crappy-team-turned-awesome: the 2003-04 San Jose Sharks. And for all you Maple Leafs fans, this is your great shining beacon of hope that Ron Wilson is the right man for the job.
2003-04 started off as a pretty awful year for the Sharks. Fresh off being one of the worst teams in the league, losing their long-time captain to a trade (Owen Nolan), and losing their most-talented player to free agency (Teemu Selanne), the Sharks began the season in earnest under the watchful eyes of Ron Wilson. Wilson, if you recall, took over partially through the season for Darryl Sutter, but this was his first full kick at the can in San Jose.
How did it begin? How about one win in October. San Jose finished October a scary 1-5-4, including a god-awful 0-0 tie of a home opener (yes, there were ties back then, and yes, I was there for that). In the press, Wilson kept preaching his system and patience, saying over and over that once the players bought into it and understood it, good things would happen.
Well, the system had to eventually work because on paper, not a lot else would have. Their best player was a pre-80-point Patrick Marleau. They gambled on some Swedish league castaway with no eyebrows named Nils Ekman. Vincent Damphousse was a shell of his former self and some fellow named Jonathan Cheechoo seemed like he couldn’t even skate.
Patience, patience, patience. Sharks fans heard the word so much that it seemed like Wilson had a copy of Guns n’ Roses’ Lies album playing on repeat every time he opened his mouth. The funny thing is that around mid-November, Wilson’s words starting ringing with a little bit of truth. The team was playing better, using their speed and seemingly keeping in games when everyone else had written them off. Finally, it all clicked with a 5-0 win at Phoenix. After that game, the Sharks won five straight and closed out November with a 8-6-8-2 record. Over the next two months, the Sharks went on a tear, losing only six times in regulation over the next 27 games.
The months leading up to the playoffs showcased the whole lightning-in-a-bottle situation. The improbable line of defensive forward Alyn McCauley, unknown quantity Nils Ekman, and perennial underachiever Alex Korolyuk formed a deadly fast line that gave defenses fits while Patrick Marleau and Marco Sturm were finally living up to their potential. Even Sturm’s freak leg injury (one of those unforgettable “Why is his foot bending right when his leg is bending left?” moments) didn’t take the wind out of the team’s sails. A look up and down the roster showed plenty of fantasy no-gos: Wayne Primeau, Niko Dimitrakos, Scott Thornton. Still, the team kept scoring and winning, all the way up to the conference final where they took on another lightning-in-a-bottle team, the Calgary Flames.
Eventually, the Flames won in six games, and the Sturm injury finally came to bite the team in the butt. Still, it was a hell of a run, and considering how things started, it was all just one of those crazy improbably things.
So, Atlanta Thrashers and New York Islanders, fear not the crappy October—you too can have a magical run. And for you Toronto Maple Leafs, Ron Wilson sure knows how to coach a team that’s struggling in the talent department (he just doesn’t do well when that mediocre talent is packaged for super talent in a lopsided trade).
Unlikely? Sure. But this year’s been all about hope and change, right? If those are the buzzwords that carried a voting nation on Tuesday, maybe there’s a little hope for the NHL’s hopeless after all.
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