YOU'VE HEARD of Dan Boyle. He's the guy who severed three tendons in his left wrist last season when a skate fell from its hook above his dressing-room stall. He's the guy whose house burned while he was playing in Game 1 of the 2004 Stanley Cup finals. "Not to the ground," notes Boyle, an old hand at finding the bright side. "I only lost a third of the house."
Now, Boyle is known less for being one of the NHL's unluckiest players and more for being one of its most valuable. Now, he's the guy who has transformed the Sharks' attack—a slick, 32-year-old defenseman whose knack for evading the forecheck and delivering the puck to forwards like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau is the single biggest reason San Jose could snap its three-season streak of flaming out in the second round of the playoffs.
"The guy is a one-man breakout," says fellow rear guard Rob Blake. "He's got the skill set of a forward. When teams try to pressure him, he'll spin one way, spin the other way, and it just takes all the pressure off. He calms everything down."
"He has such good vision," adds rookie coach Todd McLellan, who guided the Sharks to a club-record 117 points. "He knows when things are closing in around him."
When San Jose general manager Doug Wilson acquired Boyle from the Lightning last summer, Wilson's goal was clear: to add Boyle's puck-rushing skills and playmaking pizzazz to what was primarily a conservative group of blueliners. Nine months later Boyle has put up 57 points—fourth among Western Conference defensemen—and established himself as the most conspicuous difference-maker on any team this season.
Wilson has long admired Boyle, in part for the route he's traveled. "There's always been that little chip on his shoulder," Wilson says. "He's always had to earn everything." Undersized—at 16 he weighed less than 150 pounds—Boyle opted for college (Miami of Ohio) over junior hockey. After failing to get drafted, he signed in 1998 with Florida, which kept him in the minors for most of two seasons, then later dealt him to Tampa Bay on Jan. 7, 2002. He promptly blew up, in a good way.
"It was like, Boom!" he recalls. "I was on the ice for more than 20 minutes the first night I played. That was the opportunity I needed." Boyle emerged as a key component in the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup championship but was overshadowed by high-scoring forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. He became sort of a Susan Lucci on skates, so often was he snubbed by All-Star Game selectors. (He was finally invited to play this season, his eighth in the NHL.) Boyle dismisses the slights—passed over in the draft, belated All-Star selection, relegation to the taxi squad of Canada's '06 Olympic team—as "just some things I've gone through in my career." But in the next breath he says the slights are part of what fuels his competitive nature, of "what makes me, me."
That "me" is a 5'11" 190-pounder who has been a terrific point guard on the Sharks' power play, helping lift the team from 10th in the NHL in scoring percentage with the man-advantage last season to third this year, an auspicious sign for the playoffs. Says left wing Jody Shelley, "In a seven-game series, it all comes down to special teams. To have a guy like that is huge for us."
Maybe huge enough to finally get San Jose past the second round.