Antti Niemi

Sharks showing they didn’t deserve to make the playoffs

The San Jose Sharks are now down three games to one to the St Louis Blues in the Western Conference Quarterfinals after falling 2-1 at HP Pavilion Thursday night. With three games left to play, beginning in St. Louis on Saturday, the Sharks are on the ropes, needing to win out if they want to advance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But they won’t. And as well they shouldn’t, because they don’t deserve to be there in the first place.

The Sharks’ identity

The Sharks have personified the definition of “playoff chokers,” as they have always had championship-caliber talent yet they’ve never even been to a Stanley Cup Finals, let alone won a Cup. This year’s team is different, though, because you can’t choke if you haven’t enjoyed success to begin with.

The Sharks have stunk on ice since the All-Star break. 2 points was the difference between San Jose sneaking into the 7th seed and not making the playoffs at all. Drawing St. Louis was probably the worst-case scenario for the Sharks, but then again there isn’t a single team in the Western Conference playoff picture that San Jose would have been favored against. Each and every team fighting for the Cup right now has an identity, and that includes the Sharks.  Unfortunately, they’re stuck with this identity: playoff losers.

Lacking leaders

San Jose’s glaring deficiencies lie in leadership and coaching. Patrick Marleau, the Sharks’ oft-cast postseason goat, has taken to performing his annual disappearing act. Joe Thornton has largely been ineffective over the first four games of this series. And while Todd McClellan did okay in plugging the penalty kill hole that was flooding this team’s boat with water, he has found a way to ignore the others that are sinking this ship as well — power play and the most basic, even-strength play.

The same things that you griped about when the Sharks got ousted in the first round of the 2008 playoffs by the Ducks? You’re still griping about them now. Defensemen carry pucks into the zone with space just to pass them back to a forward at the blue line — a forward who is standing still. Be it in the neutral zone or otherwise, San Jose’s passing is errant and conducive to turnovers. When most teams are down and need some fight to crawl back, they find that next level and put on the pressure. The Sharks get sloppy and make mistakes when they need to put shots on net. They lack a net-front presence when they cycle in the offensive zone — someone who can obstruct a goalie’s vision en route to first shot chances and rebounds. And when they’re on defense? Anyone who so desires can stick their rump right in Antti Niemi’s face without so much as being touched. Don’t believe me? Check the tape of the Blues’ second goal last night.

These are fundamental aspects of hockey — stuff you’re coached to do in Mighty Mites. Stuff the Sharks fail to do on a nightly basis. Stuff that will have them, yet again, watching the rest of the playoffs from the couch with a Bud Light.

How this will play out

Have your razors ready, kids, because this one will be over on Saturday night. The Sharks travel back to St. Louis to play Game 5 at the Scottrade Center, an arena in which the Sharks are 1-3 and blanked in all their losses. Sure, the Sharks will be desperate, but Blues’ head coach Ken Hitchcock said St. Louis is “at their best when they’re uncomfortable.” The Sharks, conversely, have shown very little fight when their backs are against the wall.

Although certain players’ contracts leave them unfortunately anchored to the Sharks (Marleau, in particular, has that pesky “no movement clause”), others certainly are not. And the Sharks have no reason at this point to move forward with Todd McClellan should the almost-certain shipwreck unfold. So don’t be surprised to see major changes to the South Bay hockey club when their short 2012 playoff run ends. Chemistry be damned, there are fundamental shortcomings up and down the Sharks’ roster.  Joe Pavelski, Thornton, Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture – at this point, nobody is safe.

That’s for good reason.  This team, as it’s built, is talented but flawed. The goal shouldn’t be “a fun playoff run” anymore. The goal should be a championship, and the Sharks, under their current construction, are nowhere near achieving it.

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