Originally created 04/28/04

Sharks swimming toward first conference finals

DENVER -- With a nearly unbeatable goalie, a top line that's scoring in bunches and a defense that has stifled one of the league's best-skating teams, San Jose has proved its surprising regular season was no fluke.

Now the Sharks are swimming toward uncharted waters: their first conference finals.

One more win against the Colorado Avalanche is all it will take. What better way to do it than by closing out the sweep Wednesday night in Denver?

"We believe in our ability to beat anybody," said San Jose's Vincent Damphousse, who had the only the goal in the Shark's 1-0 Game 3 victory Monday night. "We certainly believe we can beat Colorado. To be honest, 3-0 is better than our wildest dream. We want to win the fourth as quick as possible, because we know that there is still some fight in them."

Fight, but little hope.

Sure, the Avalanche won four straight games three times in the regular season and still believe they can come all the way back - what team wouldn't? - but the odds are not in their favor.

Only twice in NHL history have teams come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series. Toronto did it against Detroit in the 1942 Stanley Cups finals, and the New York Islanders did it in 1975 against Pittsburgh.

Twice in 87 years isn't much to go on, but it's all the Avalanche have left in a season that started with high expectations.

"We are a little bit shocked," Colorado forward Alex Tanguay said. "You've seen us throughout the year. I don't see why we wouldn't be able to win four straight. We did it earlier in the season and I wouldn't see why we can't do it again."

But about the only way it's going to happen is if there's a monumental collapse by San Jose.

Colorado put together an impressive collection of flashy and talented players, but the Sharks have made its stars all but disappear.

Center Joe Sakic has taken nine shots in the series with no points to show for it. Milan Hejduk had a goal in Game 2, but didn't take a shot in the first game and misfired on six attempts on Monday.

Even Peter Forsberg, who's made a habit of dominating in the playoffs, has had his trouble with the Sharks.

Forsberg had a goal in Game 1 and an assist in Game 2, but he has frequently been frustrated by San Jose's physical approach and a lack of calls by the officials.

"Obviously, I'm not getting any breaks right now," said Forsberg, who had three goals and five assists in the opening round against Dallas. "It's a tough situation and I think the whole team isn't getting the breaks. Maybe we're not working hard enough to get the breaks."

San Jose goalie Evgeni Nabokov has had something to do with it.

Steady during the regular season, he's been spectacular in the playoffs. Nabokov has allowed three goals in 82 shots against Colorado and his 33-save shutout in Game 3 was his second of the playoffs.

"They're a team that plays the way their goaltender plays, with confidence," Avalanche coach Tony Granato said. "They know that if they make a mistake, there's a guy back that's made the big saves all year."

But it's not just Nabokov giving Colorado problems.

San Jose's top line of Damphousse, Patrick Marleau and rookie Niko Dimitrakos has been almost unstoppable in the playoffs, combining for 11 goals and 15 assists in eight games.

Damphousse has scored in all three games against the Avalanche, including a bank shot off David Aebischer's back in Game 3, and his line has accounted for seven of San Jose's 10 goals in the series.

"The playoffs come along and all of a sudden Patty is flying, Vinny is excited and Niko is starting to show he is one of those guys that the bigger the stakes are the better he plays," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said.

In other words, the Avalanche are facing a daunting task.


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