What do you do after the worst debacle in the history of your franchise?
The Sharks went to the handshake line.
That is part of hockey tradition, whether you win a series, or lose a series, or lose a series in the most disturbing and unpardonable way possible.
In this case, the Sharks were forced to congratulate the Los Angeles Kings for coming back from a three-games-to-none deficit to win a best-of-seven series as the men in teal leaked away every pint of that advantage — something that had happened just three previous times in the 97-year history of the National Hockey League.
“It’s hard to put into words,” said Joe Pavelski, the Sharks winger, trying to explain how he felt after his team blew a lead that should not have been blown. “It’s really tough.”
There is no use piling on the Sharks at this point. They looked sad enough in that handshake line. They looked even sadder in the dressing room when, with no standing to make excuses, none of them tried. They know their reputation as underachievers who lack the killer instinct to ever win a championship.
“I don’t usually agree with it,” said Patrick Marleau, another Sharks veteran. “But you do something like this … and it’s not easy to take.”
The final score Wednesday night was 5-1, burnished by two empty-net goals in the final three minutes that rubbed in the humiliation. It was difficult to remember that early in second period, the Sharks had actually been ahead on the scoreboard with an excellent chance to destroy their demons and move on to the next playoff round.
That occurred when defenseman Matt Irwin fired a puck past Los Angeles goalie Jonathan Quick to give the Sharks a 1-0 lead just 28 seconds after the first intermission, with the SAP Center crowd in vocal boombox mode and ready to hound the Kings into mental errors. This was the vaunted home-ice advantage that some believed would help decide a Game 7.
On the ice, the Sharks didn’t get the memo. The first Kings’ goal occurred after a questionable penalty call against Sharks forward Logan Couture for elbowing. His childhood friend, L.A. defenseman Drew Doughty, scored a power-play goal 13 seconds later to tie the game.
A bad break. But the game was still up for grabs. The crowd was still roaring. The roar was sustained through three more Sharks power plays — none of which yielded goals. And then, with 1:21 left in the period, the Kings victimized the Sharks the same way they had been victimizing the Sharks in all four final games of the series. Los Angeles took advantage of bad defensive positioning or effort by the Sharks to generate an odd-man rush and score.
Specifically in this case, the Kings’ Anze Kopitar beat Sharks rookie Matt Nieto down the ice and no one else picked up Kopitar — so he had plenty of space to flip a backhanded puck past Sharks goalie Antti Niemi. The score was 2-1. It might as well have been 10-1, the way the Kings play defense when they are ahead. Another goal near the start of the third period made the task even more insurmountable.
“We were awful off the rush,” said Sharks coach Todd McLellan, in candid disgust after the loss. “We were never able to fix it.”
McLellan called the Kings’ goals “very defendable” and admitted the series loss was “the low point since I’ve been here.”
He’s been on the job for six years — all of them uniformly good in the regular season (including this one, in which the Sharks finished with the NHL’s fifth-best record) and almost always a busted-balloon of expectations in the postseason.
Of course, the Kings realized that, as well. After they won Game 5 here Saturday, you had the feeling the Los Angeles players were almost expecting a collapse in Game 6 and Game 7.
“We kind of sensed going into tonight’s game they were going to be a little nervous,” Doughty said, “that they were going to kind of see what was going to happen. I felt they played a good game. But the third period was huge for us.”
Only the third period? What about all the periods after the Sharks’ Game 3 victory that put them in prime position to clinch?
Full marks to the Kings, who persevered and refused to believe they were finished. But the Sharks, whose offensive stars fizzled in the final three games, were equal contributors to the result. And so the franchise must endure another summer of soul searching after a disappointing playoff thud.
“They all hurt,” Pavelski said. “This one probably hurts the worst.”
–Mark Purdy, San Jose Mercury News
Welcome, Sharks, to the lowest moment in franchise history.
The Sharks have had other flameouts. They’ve been frustrating, anemic, puzzling, underachieving – often all on the same shift. Almost always in the playoffs.
“There’s been a lot of low points,” said Patrick Marleau, who’s been around for most of them and knows what people say about the Sharks at this time of year.
“I don’t usually agree with it,” Marleau said. “But you do something like this and it’s not easy to take.”
Because Wednesday night was the absolute nadir. There is no description for it other than the cruelest: a terrible choke job – one of the worst in NHL history.
Before Wednesday night’s 5-1 cherry on the top of the Sharks’ complete collapse, only three hockey teams had blown a 3-0 series lead, one in 1942, one in 1975 and the Boston Bruins four years ago. By that pattern, we shouldn’t have had to witness such a brutal collapse for another three decades or so.
Instead, the Sharks became the fourth team to reach the lowest level of ignominy, blowing a series in epic fashion.
“They all hurt, but this one probably looks the worst,” Joe Pavelski said.
That it did. The Sharks lost Game 7 in the same ways that they lost the previous three games: looking flat, lackluster, failing to score on the power play, failing to grab the momentum, getting very little production from their biggest, highest-paid names.
“The guys on the power play are our go-to guys. We didn’t produce for the last four games and their guys did,” Logan Couture said. “That’s the difference.”
This was the second consecutive year the Sharks lost Game 7 to the Kings, but unlike last year, this game was played on San Jose’s home ice. And unlike last year, they had four chances to close out the series and couldn’t do it.
“We won’t go away quietly, that’s for sure,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter had warned after his team lost Game 3.
While the Kings’ best players skated with confidence, nobody stepped up for the Sharks. Maybe they didn’t realize the game was being played on the 20th anniversary of Jamie Baker’s winning goal in Game 7 in Detroit, a shot that shocked the hockey world.
The Sharks, as Marleau has heard so often, are perennial playoff underachievers. But nothing before has been this brutal. The Sharks outscored the Kings 17-8 in the first three games and then lost their aggressiveness. Of the four losses, the two worst came on the Sharks’ home ice. The Sharks went 0-15 on the power play in their final three games.
Once again, the Sharks succeeded in smothering their crowd and home ice advantage. After taking a 1-0 lead 28 seconds into the second period on a goal by Matt Irwin (playing only because of the injury to Marc-Edouard Vlasic), the Sharks went into a shell. By the fourth lifeless power play, the fans were booing. So it was no surprise that as the period was winding down, the Kings’ big guns converted on an odd-man rush: Justin Williams toAnze Kopitar to give the Kings a 2-1 lead.
“Game over,” head coach Todd McLellan said.
The Kings scored again early in the third period to make it 3-1. The rest was just Ice Capades and two empty-netters.
Once again we are left puzzling over the Amazing Shrinking Sharks, who come up so small in the biggest moments. Do we blame McLellan? That’s what often happens in the NHL, where coaches get shuffled like old playing cards, but McLellan wasn’t on the ice. Do we blame Antti Niemi, who was back in goal after Alex Stalock couldn’t close out the series in Los Angeles? Easy, but not the right call.
The blame probably lies with general manager Doug Wilson, who has continued to build teams of mostly nice guys and centers them on two “stars” who play well in the regular season but not in the playoffs. Once again, Joe Thornton and Marleau were missing in action too often at big moments in this series. This year, Pavelski and Couture also vanished.
Marleau and Thornton are both 34 and locked up with contract extensions for three more years, until they’re 37. Which, in hockey years, is the equivalent of 102. It will be interesting to see if the Sharks can improve their team while also getting old.
The scorching outside temperatures Wednesday only served to remind everyone that San Jose remains the only California hockey team never to win the Stanley Cup. But in terms of franchise embarrassments, that’s low on the list. What happened in the past week is now at the top.
Five hundred miles south, the Anaheim Ducks were basking in the sun and waiting for whoever won this series. Now the Ducks and the Kings will play each other in a freeway series, while the Sharks will sit at home, wondering once again how it could all go so horribly wrong.
“This,” said Couture, “is the kind of series that rips your heart out.”
–Ann Killion, San Francisco Chronicle
On a night that demanded self-loathing on an almost galactic scale, the San Jose Sharks accepted their fate with a greater willingness than any would have thought.
On the ice, that was absolutely true. In losing Game 7 of this Western Conference quarterfinal series to the Los Angeles Kings, 5-1, they became the fourth team in NHL history to take a 3-0 lead in games and lose the series. Their collapse was indeed the most monumental of them all, as they were outscored 18-5 in the final four games — and those scores were generous assessments of the real imbalance between the two teams. They deserved to own this disaster, and they will deserve the fallout that is to come.
But it was the postgame self-assessment where they excelled, in fact the only time all night they excelled – in abject self-flagellation. They were devastated, ashamed, angry, humiliated, and painfully self-aware of just how revolting this collapse was. And they deserved every insult they could hurl down upon themselves. They know what their reputation as playoff lightweights are, and now they have no way to respond other than with the killing phrase, “You’re right.”
“Every loss is pretty bad,” said Logan Couture, one of the many missing core performers in the final four games, “but this one is different. I’m supposed to be one of the players we count on, and I didn’t perform the way I wanted to. This one hurts a lot more. I’ll spend every day of the summer thinking about this one.”
“There have been lots of lows, but this was definitely one of the worst,” said Patrick Marleau, the team’s longest-serving player and someone for whom self-examination has never been a public thing. “What other people say . . . well, I don’t usually agree with it, but when you do something like this, well, it’s not easy to take.”
And head coach Todd McLellan was even more pointed than that as he poked angrily at the cold ashes of the worst good season this team has ever had.
“There have been a lot of good moments in this franchise,” he said with disgust commingled with anger in his mouth, “but this is as low as it’s been for me. That’s an easy one to answer.
“The difference is this. They (the Kings) fixed their problems, and ours got progressively worse. We were awful off the rush, and as much as we worked on it, we didn’t get any better at it.
“(Another) problem we ran into was getting them to understand that those 6-3, 7-2 games (at the beginning of the series) weren’t going to keep coming. They’re too good a team for that. This isn’t like last year (when the Sharks also lost to the Kings in seven games). That series was a lot closer than this one was. They were the better team. That was quite evident.”
The details of Game 7 were not all that compelling. They did nothing with four second-period power plays. They gave up a late second period goal to Anze Kopitar and an early third-period score to Tyler Toffoli. Their mild gamble on Antti Niemi in goal did not hurt them, because the failures were comprehensive and across the board.
They were just as McLellan said – awful.
So how do they rise from this? Better yet, DO they rise from this? The 1943 Red Wings won the Stanley Cup after the 1942 version lost to Toronto. The 1975 Penguins who lost to the New York Islanders won two playoff series in the next 16 years before discovering Mario Lemieux. The 2011 Bruins won the Cup the year after heimliching their 2010 series with Philadelphia.
But this team is nowhere near Boston’s. The central core of this team went missing with the kill shot ready to be applied. The goaltending was wobbly, and the defense was wobblier once Marc-Edouard Vlasic got hurt. And though this was not a failure of coaching – the players have to eat all four courses of this – one has to wonder about McLellan’s future.
Only for a minute, anyway. General manager Doug Wilson would be foolish to even consider exchanging McLellan for anyone, and McLellan would be in Toronto or Vancouver within days filling either of those two high-profile vacancies.
And Wilson? He is probably safe as well, but if owner Hasso Plattner is as engaged as he should be enraged, substantive changes will be “suggested.” And maybe it’s about time. This team has stood essentially pat for years, and has become notorious for big resumes and small results.