Sometimes, a great leader is all that it takes.
On July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg, the 20th Maine found themselves as the entire left flank of the Union Army. Leading these men was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a man of letters who would go on to become the Governor of Maine, but at this moment was just trying to figure out how to hold on. All day, his 20th had repelled repeated assaults by the 15th Alabama regiment and held, but they were beginning to wear thin. Casualties and a meager ammunition stockpile were increasing realities for his soldiers, and Chamberlain was now faced with yet another attack up the hill by the Rebels.
Then, in a stroke of daring leadership, Chamberlain ordered his battered, bloodied and out-gunned band of Maine farmers to fix bayonets and charge the 15th Alabama in what would go down as one of the greatest charges in military history. Upon hearing Chamberlain’s single word, “bayonet!” his emboldened men bravely raced down “Little Round Top” and right into the teeth of the Confederate rifle fire. In an overwhelming wave, the 20th Maine crushed the Rebels, and in doing so, preserved the entire left side of the Union defensive flank and prevented the entire Union Army itself from being compromised.
A week and a half ago, the San Jose Sharks also found themselves in a precarious position. For a miserable stretch of games, they had endured repeated assaults by teams who were now the ones smelling the blood in the water, seeing the former champion reeling and increasingly vulnerable. Six different opponents had walked into HP Pavilion and all six times, they had left victorious. In this short span of pure futility, the Sharks had removed themselves from not only contending for the lead in the Pacific Division, but out of possible playoff contention. There was dissension, there was bickering and there was verified booing…and that was just from the fans at the Shark Tank.
The Sharks had zero ammunition, and the enemy could care less about a fair fight.
A testy Coach Todd McLellan, who had spent daily post-game pressers continuously defending and explaining his team to a hounding media, began to undergo a change of his own during this string of losing. McLellan’s body language and statements still all told of a frustrated coach trying to solve the riddle of underachieving superstars, but his demeanor and statements transformed from that of a ticked off clipboard banger to a man of stoic resolution. Players needed to decide for themselves if they wanted to play for the San Jose Sharks, some players needed to watch a few games from the press box and others needed to play like a bus ticket to Worchester depended on it.
Finally, as it was a coach’s job to prepare his team, and the Sharks were by every account, a woefully unprepared bunch, McLellan called on himself to first and foremost up his own game.
In this calling of the highest attention to his own faults as their leader, McLellan protected and took fire for the Sharks. He knew this was not a squad that would respond to the Kurt Russell from “Miracle” bag skate (“AGAIN!”) as much as many Sharks’ fans, myself included, thought they deserved one. This was also not a group that would respond to certain stars being called out and publicly thrown under the bus in the papers, and credit to Todd McLellan for not taking the easiest, “vent your spleen” way out there and holding to his convictions. McLellan knew that he was the most knowledgeable individual in terms of understanding the best way to reach his team, and he trusted in his own leadership.
McLellan also knew that for the San Jose Sharks to endure and play through the pressure of losing that they had brought upon themselves, find their collective confidence and get back on track, his team needed to see that their head coach and leader was setting the example of poise and confidence. He did, and the Sharks recent play has shown evidence that perhaps his teachings and example are beginning to take root.
The slump buster was a visit from the St. Louis Blues last Saturday. The Blues had been teetering themselves, losers of five out of their last six, but at the level the Sharks had been playing, no team was beneath them. When B.J. Crombeen put the first goal of the game up against Antti Niemi, the tension at the Tank was palatable. Would this be another game with the Sharks getting blown out in their own building? How much of this are we meant to endure? When Dany Heatley tied it up later that first period, and netted his first goal in seven games, the Sharks seemed to spark for the first time in a very long while and those in attendance were able to bear witness to that. Joe Thornton scored mid-way through the second period and even when the Blues tied it up at two apiece, it just didn’t feel like games of past. There was a confidence and swagger, and when Heater potted his second of the game early in the third, the Sharks looked like an honest team for the first time in weeks. Jamie McGinn’s first tally of the 2010-2011 season to close out the third was a fitting capper to a great game. Solid win, but, in all fairness it was against a reeling opponent and the Sharks’ next game against the Phoenix Coyotes would be against a team who was anything but reeling.
The Coyotes had blasted through a four game winning stretch where they had scored 19 times, but Niemi was able to hold them to a pair last Monday and the Sharks won their second game in a row 4-2 since the “streak of shame”. Heatley, Logan Couture and Thornton all had two point nights, the Sharks actually started off the scoring in the game and Patrick Marleau’s 1000th NHL game was a triumphant affair. If the Blues game was the slump buster, and the Coyotes game was their first test against a hot opponent, the Sharks’ game tonight versus the Vancouver Canucks will truly assess just where they are in their re-development and attitude change.
It’s not just about winning the game tonight, although that would be preferable. By all accounts and measures, the Canucks are a much better team than the Sharks and arguably one of the early contenders to come out of the Western Conference. So, losing to them would not be an embarrassment, a feeling that had been defined so acutely in their miserable home stretch. What needs to happen tonight is a continuation of mistake free hockey, which means no defensive bunching, no defensemen falling down when trying to skate backwards and no reaching for pucks in an effort to mitigate a lack of hustle.
It was those types of uncharacteristic gaffes and character flaws that were the signature moments of the Sharks’ losing streak, and were also the most confusing for Sharks’ fans used to precision and pressure. It is no coincidence that once those mistakes were cut down, we saw a return to a bit of normalcy…and wins.
It will take a full court press tonight against a charging Canuck’s squad to pull out a victory. The Sharks’ position in the Western Conference has not been overrun, but it came awfully close and tonight will find them defending the hill against a very tough adversary. A full blown, blind charge is not needed at this point, but they must repel the assault that will be coming in waves from Team Sedin tonight. This game has a great potential to give the Sharks an increased confidence they need to climb up the standings, but they must be ready to battle.
Only one thing is known, we don’t know exactly when the waves of fire will start to hit the Sharks tonight, but rest assured it will be coming…and just how the Sharks respond to it will go a long way in defining how the remainder of the season might play out.
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