- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

Despite their fierce logo, the San Jose Sharks have been a cute team. Not because they played finesse hockey but because they made for a good story whenever they pulled off a huge playoff upset as they did in 1994, 1995 and 2000.
But in their 11th season and fifth under coach Darryl Sutter, the Sharks are seeking an image change. After finishing second in the Pacific Division for the first time last season, San Jose has led it most of this season. Before last night's game at MCI Center, the Sharks (31-17-7-3) had a three-point lead (and two games in hand) over Pacific rival Los Angeles and were just two points behind Stanley Cup champion Colorado (with three games in hand) for second place in the Western Conference.
"We're a good enough team, and we've earned enough respect that we're not going to be a big underdog again," Sutter said. "No one's going to take us lightly anymore. We want to contend for the Stanley Cup. Are we there yet? I think we're close, but on paper we're not [Western Conference front-runner] Detroit or Colorado yet because we're counting on some young guys to take us to another level. We're still a work in progress.
"And it's not just Detroit. I still have big-time fears about Colorado and St. Louis. It will come down to what typically wins games: goaltending, special teams, great defense and discipline."
Sutter's teams are always disciplined (although San Jose was averaging an NHL-high 15.7 penalty minutes), second-year starting goalie Evgeni Nabkov was tied for the lead with seven shutouts and for fifth in save percentage, and the penalty-killing was a solid 11th.
However, the power play was 21st despite the presence of dangerous scorers Teemu Selanne (acquired at the trade deadline last March), Owen Nolan and Vincent Damphousse. Only Detroit, Colorado and the New York Rangers had more Olympians than San Jose's six.
Conversely, it took five years for the Sharks to accumulate that many All-Star selections. But if San Jose can average a point a game the rest of the way, it will tie the New York Islanders' NHL record of improving in six consecutive seasons (1974 to 1979).
"This franchise had some success in its early years in the playoffs, but then the organization imploded and we had to regroup," said Dean Lombardi, who became San Jose's general manager six years ago next week. "We've taken incremental steps the last five years, which our fans allowed us to do because they filled the building every night. We're heading in the right direction, but ultimately we want to win the big prize, and we're not close yet.
"We don't want to be like a dot-com, go for it all in one bite and then disappear. We have 12 players 26 and under. We're a middle/young team. The teams that have traditionally gone all the way like Detroit and Dallas have been middle/older teams. So that bodes well for our future if we can keep the team together [only Selanne is a unrestricted free agent]."
That may also depend on the new ownership. Sharks president Greg Jamison heads a group that bought the franchise Tuesday from founder George Gund (pending NHL approval).
In any event, 17th-year defenseman Gary Suter, one of five Sharks to have won a Cup (with Calgary in 1989), likes what he has seen from his team this season.
"We've been building something," Suter said. "We have a real solid team that can roll four lines and six defensemen and wear teams down that shorten their bench. We're trying to break into the top half of the conference, but we can't be considered part of the elite group until we do it. Just making the playoffs isn't good enough for this franchise anymore. We have to make a run deep into the playoffs to have a successful season."
Cute no longer cuts it.


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