The Sharks are chokers. Playoff pretenders. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Their fans have gotten used to hearing their team pasted with these labels over the last several years, and when the history books get written, the 2012-13 squad will be no different. If there was ever a year to do it, this was it. An aging core of veterans would benefit from the lockout-shortened season, finding their stride at the usual time. Except the usual time would be the playoffs rather than the second half of the season. They would finally get over the hump and win a Cup.
Of course it wasn’t meant to be, and at this point you have to wonder if it will be anytime soon. The planets were aligning for San Jose. The Sharks were pushing the Kings to the limit in their series, but the other half of the Western Conference Semifinals were going the distance as well. The Red Wings were showing the Blackhawks’ vulnerabilities that — if Chicago advances — could have easily been exploited. If it turned out to be Detroit, San Jose would have had home ice advantage and a stellar track record of late to lean on.
None of it matters now. With a 2-1 Game 7 victory, it will be the Kings — not the Sharks — who represent California in the Western Conference Finals.
One can only speculate which was the biggest factor in the Sharks undoing:
- Was it Game 48 of the regular season? Lots of people (including me) thought San Jose liked the idea of playing the Canucks in Round 1 rather than the Blues, which would explain why the Sharks put out a D effort in the final regular season game. It came back to bite them: the home team held serve in every game the Sharks and Kings played, both regular and postseason.
- Was it the inauspicious 5-on-3 in Game 2? Sure, the Sharks got one back the next game, but skating out of Staples Center with a 1-1 split would have meant the series ending Sunday at HP Pavilion.
- What about the Raffi Torres suspension? San Jose’s depth at forward went from four-line dynamic to heavy-at-the-top and light-at-the-bottom. Jarett Stoll didn’t play a single game after the hit, so it’s hard to say whether two wrongs made a right.
- Was it because I didn’t make a road trip down to Los Angeles for Game 7? Perhaps.
We can point at all of the above, but I’ve been beating the “seven-game” drum all series long. In going the distance, this round proved who the better team was, but only by a slim margin. The Kings hit harder, attacked more fiercely and defended their end with more voracity than the Sharks did. They were opportunistic in Games 1 and 2, resilient in Game 5 and showed more killer instinct in Game 7. They deserved to move onto the Western Conference Finals.
Oh yeah, then there’s Jonathan Quick.
This is no knock on Antti Niemi, who was stellar in this series. He put out perhaps his best effort of the season in Game 7. But Quick was phenomenal. San Jose had plenty of chances to get back into it after Dan Boyle got them on the board in the third period, but the more pressure the Sharks applied, the more circus-like Quick’s saves became. His best of the entire series came on a shot from Joe Pavelski with time winding down. The puck got a little bit behind the winger so elevating was nearly impossible, but the goaltender stretched the length of the crease to glove it and keep the Kings’ one-goal advantage nonetheless.
Sharks fans may have felt good about this season because of Niemi. Teams that go on to win the Stanley Cup usually do so riding a hot goaltender, but how many of them have to face an even hotter one and actually get past them? It’s another chapter in San Jose Sharks history, which is becoming a dark comedy of sorts now.
Is this another choke job?
Lazy analysts and those who paid very little attention will say so, but this series was anything but a choke. The Sharks had to try and take Game 7 from the defending Stanley Cup champions. They nearly did it. Say what you will about the Blackhawks and remaining contenders in the East, but this series featured the two best remaining teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As much as it pains me to say it, we could be looking at a repeat champion in the 2012-13 Los Angeles Kings.
Off the Post
— It was discussed time and time again, but special teams played a big role in San Jose’s elimination. The Sharks weren’t terrible, but the Kings held the edge in both penalty kill and power play for most of the series. The Sharks didn’t enjoy a full man-advantage once in Game 7 — both of their power plays resulted in 4-on-4s and shortened 5-on-4s — but the Kings got one and capitalized on it.
— I’ll leave it to you guys to talk about what needs to happen with the Sharks now. They’ve got about one year left to sustain what they currently have, and then you’ll see the certain undoing of the core we’ve come to know and love (/hate). Should they blow it up, as so many demand when things go bad? Or is this team fit, with another few tweaks, to not just make a run, but actually win a Stanley Cup?
— Don’t be surprised to see Logan Couture take the “C” from Joe Thornton next year. He took over the leadership role midway through the season and the team took on his identity. He is confident, almost cocky, and he comes through when it counts. He scored two of the Sharks’ three game-winning goals in the Semifinals, and had it not been for Quick, someone on this squad would have given him a chance for another one tonight.
— On a personal note: I had a great time covering the Sharks this season, and I’m going to miss doing it during this long offseason. My love for Sharks hockey is what got my foot in the door here at BASG, and it only grows as I get to write about it game in and game out. Thank you to everybody who read and interacted with me over the course of the season. A special thanks should go out to the Sharks, their media relations staff and the players who were so cordial with me during interviews too. And finally, thanks to those who helped me find my way around. You know who you are.