Sharks' playoff scouting report

Antti Niemi has the ability to carry the San Jose Sharks in the playoffs. AP Photo/Ben Margot

It's either a sign that the rest of the league is catching up to the San Jose Sharks, or that the Sharks took a step backward, but for whatever reason it took San Jose a heck of a lot longer to punch a playoff ticket this season.

Over the past month, it became clear that the Sharks wouldn't be coasting into the postseason and it was an adjustment the team didn't initially handle with ease.

"We didn't deal with the pressure so well," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said during a chat this past week. "Now we seem to be playing -- I'd call it playing free. Playing a little looser, a little freer … maybe that will help us."

The Sharks are the biggest wild card of the entire playoffs. This is a franchise that was picked quite often to win the Stanley Cup (including by this writer) following two consecutive seasons reaching the Western Conference finals. They added Martin Havlat and Brent Burns to a core group that includes Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle, Logan Couture, Ryane Clowe, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski, one that learned through heartache and growth how to win in the postseason.

Nobody thought it'd be an issue just to get to the postseason, upping the stress level in the final weeks of the season.

"We were forced to play these kind of [playoff-like] games," McLellan said. "With that being said, we responded well, took a step back and then responded well again."

A strong finish to the regular season for the Sharks, who won some huge games down the stretch, only raises more questions. Do we put them back among the Western Conference favorites? Were they just waiting to turn it on at the most crucial point?