It's the San Jose Sharks' own damn fault for resurrecting The Choker Label.
It was an afterthought after an impressive run to the conference finals in 2010 and a resilient opening-round series against the Los Angeles Kings this year. They rallied from a 4-0 deficit in Game 3 vs. the Kings. Joe Thornton(notes) — JOE THORNTON! — scored a series-winning overtime goal. The Choker was a distant nightmare … and now it's all anyone can talk about before Game 7 against the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night:
"The pressure was on the Wings at Joe Louis Arena. Despite their constricting feeling around their throats, the Sharks still could afford one more loss. But now the noose is firmly pressed against the San Jose collars. The Sharks could become the fourth team in Stanley Cup playoff history to blow a series after taking a 3-0 lead." — Drew Sharp, Detroit Free Press.
"About the only thing the Sharks have going for them is that it'll be a short trip to the first tee if they find a way to finish off this epic choke job before the home crowd." — John Niyo, Detroit News.
"Lives are not on the line. But jobs might be. Certainly, reputations will be forever cast in stone if Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau(notes) and the rest of the Sharks cannot escape embarrassment with a series-clinching win. Remember, this is not a one-year thing. Two years ago, the Sharks won the Presidents' Trophy as the top team in the regular season and then lost in the first round to Anaheim. Last year, they made it all the way to the conference final, only to be swept in four straight games by Chicago." — Michael Traikos, National Post.
"Win at HP Pavilion on Thursday night against the resurgent Detroit Red Wings, and the Sharks will have validation of newfound character. Lose, and they will complete a historic collapse that only further cements this franchise's reputation for playoff failure and, yes, choking." — Mark Emmons, San Jose Mercury News
The dirty little secret about Game 7 and The Choker Label: Even a Sharks' victory doesn't shake it.
They're still the team which blew a 3-0 lead. This collapse against Detroit will be added to all the other playoff disappointments conveniently placed under that heading. The only thing Thursday night determines is if it becomes the first item on that list or a supporting detail — "…and they blew that 3-0 lead to Detroit, too."
[Related: Cotsonika: Wings on verge of history]
The narrative that this game cements or rejects The Choker Label is faulty. There's one thing that rejects it, ultimately — a Stanley Cup banner in the HP Pavilion rafters, and winning this series puts the San Jose Sharks eight victories away from that paradigm shift for their franchise.
Which players will step up and save their postseason?
The reason so many of us believed, perhaps foolhardily, that this San Jose team was different was because the burden of leadership and scoring were shared between two "generations" (and pay grades) of Sharks players.
Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley(notes), Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle(notes) were the veteran core of star players with big contracts and big minutes. Thornton's the captain; Boyle and Marleau are alternates. They're the backbone of this team.
Ryane Clowe(notes), the Sharks' leading playoff scorer and a game-time decision for Game 7, is another alternate captain. He's part of a group including Joe Pavelski(notes), rookie Logan Couture(notes) and goalie Antti Niemi(notes) that made up the heart of this team through the season and into the postseason.
Because even when the backbone fails, the heart keeps pumping.
It wasn't just about the Big Three scorers anymore, which made you believe this Sharks team was something special. The last three games have derailed that notion, because no one from either group has stepped up to win the final game.
Some have tried: Niemi's been great, Pavelski and Couture scored in Game 5. But no one's broken through with the game on the line.
Personally, I view Game 7 as the quintessential moment for the heart of this team. What do you expect from Patrick Marleau, after six games and zero points? What do you expect out of Heatley? It's Clowe (if he plays), Pavelski and Couture that are the tone-setters. It's those players that seem the likeliest heroes, along with Niemi.
But Thornton … even with a lack of production, he hasn't been invisible for the last three games. Ask a Sharks fan after Game 4, and Thornton's their Conn Smythe pick for the team.
Just three years ago, the Sharks faced their only previous home Game 7 and walloped Calgary 5-3.
Thornton smiled when that game was brought up. "It was a great game -- tough series, another tough series," Thornton said. "And I don't think there's a better feeling in hockey than going seven games, winning it in front of your home fans. That's what we're looking to do."
You were really emotional throughout that game, remember that, Joe? "Was I? I don't remember that," Thornton said. "Three years ago? Don't remember yesterday to be honest with you."
Then the Sharks' leader, and captain, walked from the assembled media. He had a silly grin and a relaxed stride. He already has his name on Game 7, now the rest is figuring out the details and playing out the history.
The last time the Sharks were at home in this series, they won the first 40 minutes. Then the Red Wings turned it on in the third, and not a soul in teal and black stepped up to take the game back.
In Game 7, they could be heroes. Just for one day.
Video via Peter Santangeli.