By Frank Pingue
TORONTO (Reuters) - Regular-season powerhouse San Jose have struggled for years to shake off their postseason chokers tag, but this year their dreams of winning a first Stanley Cup have been put on the back burner as the Sharks battle just to reach the playoffs.
"We got to win some games," Sharks captain Joe Thornton told reporters on Thursday before the team snapped a four-game losing skid with a 2-1 road win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. "The reality is we are in a fight to make the playoffs right now."
Patrick Marleau helped get his team back on track with two goals in Thursday's victory, including the opener on a nifty pass from Thornton, while goalie Antti Niemi turned aside 29 shots in a winning effort.
For the last four seasons, and in six of the last nine, San Jose have ruled the Pacific division. But losing four of their last five games has them at risk of surrendering that reign and falling out of playoff contention with 23 games remaining.
Led by Canadian Olympic gold medal winners Thornton and Marleau, there is no panic in the dressing room of a team that have learned the hard way that dominating in the regular season only heightens postseason failure.
"It's one of those things that teams go through during the season and it's a time for veteran guys to bring some calmness and bring their game to make sure we get going on the right path again," said Marleau.
While San Jose brought in some new faces in the offseason in hopes of giving the roster a boost, the team's core members have remained the same for the past several seasons.
Thornton, who leads San Jose with 54 points this season and was the Sharks' top scorer in four of the last six campaigns, is not discouraged by recent playoff setbacks and remains hungry to turn his team into champions.
"You're an athlete, you have a lot of drive. For a team to go to back-to-back Western Conference finals is a pretty good feat," said Thornton, who was drafted first overall by the Boston Bruins in 1997 and traded to San Jose in 2005.
"But first of all we've got to get back to the dance. We're right back in the mix of things so we've still got a lot of games to still prove ourselves to get there."
Battling for a playoff spot is relatively new ground for a Sharks team that finished among the top-two teams in the Western Conference the last four seasons, including first place twice.
Sharks alternate captain Dan Boyle is well versed in playoff redemption having lost in the Eastern Conference final while playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning and then helping that team capture their first Stanley Cup a year later in 2004.
When asked how he overcomes the disappointment of a near-miss and manages to maintain the passion to make another deep playoff run a year later, he was quick with a reply.
"That's in here," Boyle said as he placed his hand over his heart. "You got to want to win. You either have it or you don't."
(Reporting by Peter Rutherford)