April 29, 2009
(Ed. Note: As the Stanley Cup Playoffs continue, we're bound to lose some friends along the journey. Gone but not forgotten, we've asked for these losers to be eulogized by the people who knew the teams best: The fans who hated them the most. Here is Anaheim Ducks blogger Earl Sleek of Battle of California fondly recalling the San Jose Sharks for a second straight year.)
By Earl Sleek
We gather here today to honor the memory of the San Jose Sharks, who once again reacted to the postseason like vampires react to the high noon sun. (Yeah, it's a stale joke, but I think at this point, all jokes about the Sharks and the postseason should be inherently stale.)
It's tempting to take the easy way out and call this Sharks team "chokers" with "no heart", but labels like that are absent-minded and hollow, and more importantly don't allow us to appreciate the uniqueness of 2009.
Because this year was different.
In case you're unfamiliar, the Sharks' post-lockout story is one of maddening consistency - for three straight years the Sharks improved their standings position in a mean western conference, they'd advance to the second round, and they'd promptly get eliminated. In that dreaded conference semifinal round, the Sharks lost back-to-back-to-back games in back-to-back-to-back years. Ouch.
Tired of their perpetual "two rounds and out" existence, the Sharks increased payroll by some $15 million and added an influx of Cup Ring experience -- they snagged head coach Todd McLellan from the Red Wings and inserted veterans Dan Boyle, Rob Blake, and Brad Lukowich on the blueline, plus added Travis Moen, Claude Lemieux, and Kent Huskins for depth. They infused that winner's mentality throughout their lineup, talked incessantly about measuring their team by its postseason success, and from October through March it worked like a charm, especially on home ice. San Jose didn't suffer a regulation loss at the Tank until mid-January, and through March 31, had accumulated a 31-3-4 home record.
That's right -- six months, three regulation losses. Sadly, in the month of April, they would lose four more.
As a reward for their franchise-record 53 wins and Presidents-Trophy-earning 117 standings points, the Sharks drew an all-too-familiar foe in the first round: the downstate rival Anaheim Ducks.
The Ducks have been somewhat an indirect thorn in the Sharks' side -- for every postseason that the Sharks have underachieved, the Ducks have one of overachievement, including California's first Stanley Cup two springs ago. Anaheim has gone to the cup finals as a seventh seed, gone to the conference finals as a sixth seed, and Chris Pronger helped lead an eighth-seeded Oilers team to the cup finals as well -- and that's all since 2003. It's a story in contrasts in recent years -- the Ducks generally getting better than they deserve, and the Sharks generally deserving better than they get.
The Ducks' mercurial regular season dropped them down to eighth seed, and for the first time in forty years, a postseason Battle of California was set. Every advantage seemed to be in San Jose's court -- they had home ice, better forward depth, a better defensive scheme, better special teams, a proven netminder, and they had won the season series. The Ducks had one really strong forward line, a well-rounded defense, a good power play, and a goalie who was making his postseason debut (another unfair trend: every three years Anaheim finds itself another playoff-killing netminder).
Now there's really two ways to tell the story of this series -- a rational observer could look and say that the Sharks were dominant in every game, and except for a wide disparity in goaltending, they should have taken the Ducks down easily. JavaGeek, one of my favorite stats-crunchers on the Internet, calculated that based on shot quality and quantity, against a nominal goalie the Sharks should have scored 25.9 goals. Instead, thanks to the effort of a Swiss savant named Hiller, they scored 10.
Or there's the lazy way, to trot out the easy stories we've read every postseason - Thornton can't perform in the playoffs, Marleau doesn't care as much as Iginla does, Nabokov is never as good as his opponent, Coach Whatshisname can't motivate the team, and they'll try it again next year. Jumbo Joe Thornton in particular gets more than his share of blame when it comes to postseason failure. He led the Sharks in scoring this spring (four of his six assists in the series were on San Jose goals), fought Ryan Getzlaf two seconds into Game 6; but even after that, he couldn't face the media after the Sharks' elimination. I guess he didn't want people to see him cry.
Sweet! Yummy! Who's the crybaby now, Nabokov?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling awful for the Sharks or their fans. After years of second-round frustration, they put together the best roster the franchise had ever seen, easily cruised to the regular season's best record, held legitimate dreams of contending for Stanley's Elusive Cup, but then, thanks to their lucky rivals down south, tied their franchise record for "quickest playoff exit ever."
Then again, there is absolutely wrong with enjoying the bittersweet taste of Shark tears, either. Salty!
At the end of it all, here's the awesome irony. Sharks fans are up in arms. Trade Thornton! Trade Marleau! Trade Nabokov! Trade anybody not named Boyle for anybody who is named Boyle! I don't mean to suggest that there shouldn't be some roster-tinkering this summer, but as a Ducks fan, I hope it is a drastic summer: The less that next season's roster resembles this season's roster, the happier I will likely be.
I would love it if the team gutted itself in some vain search for "heart" and "passion" (hint: those labels are hidden right next to the "wins"). Don't forget: this Sharks roster had a 20-point lead in the Pacific Division by Jan. 3. If they want to change that formula, good luck to them.
So raise your glass and join in the toast to a very special Sharks burial, perhaps the most epic one of them all. Let's end with how I concluded my Sharks Eulogy last year.
And maybe sometime soon Sharks fans will have to look longingly back at the "glory days" when San Jose was practically guaranteed to advance to a second-round collapse.
I know I'll miss it.