VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Going hard to the net? Good. Scoring a goal? Even better. Standing over the goaltender, looking down through the top of the net and talking smack afterward? Dumb.
Even dumber when all you did was score a garbage goal at the end of a 7-3 blowout loss in an important playoff game, a snowball you helped roll down the hill by taking boarding and tripping penalties earlier in the night.
But that's what Ben Eager(notes) did Wednesday, sparking a scrum, taking a roughing penalty and then adding a cross-checking penalty and a 10-minute misconduct after getting out of the box in the final seconds for good measure.
And the saddest part of all for the San Jose Sharks? At least Eager made an effort against the Vancouver Canucks. His coach would rather take the bad with the good he got from Eager than the little to nothing he got from others.
"We had some guys that really showed up and committed themselves to the team, and then we had some guys that weren't sure," Todd McLellan said. "There's a few people in our group – and I'm not going to hide them anymore – they have to ask themselves whether they want to keep on competing."
"I'll hide that part," McLellan said.
There is no hiding this: The Sharks aren't going to be competing much longer unless they turn themselves around – and quick.
They have dug a 2-0 hole in the Western Conference final. They have lost five of their past six playoff games, after blowing a 3-0 lead to the Detroit Red Wings in the second round and winning Game 7.
As badly as they want to shed their reputation as perennial playoff disappointments and advance to their first Stanley Cup final, they have lost six consecutive conference final games over the past two years (and eight straight if you want to stretch back to 2004).
I'm sure Sharks fans can think of a few more, but they aren't fit for print or pixels.
It was one thing when the Sharks lost their legs in the third period of a 3-2 loss in Game 1. They had only two days off after that epic, emotional seven-game series with Detroit, while the Canucks had enjoyed a five-day rest.
There was no excuse this time. Both teams had two days off, and the Sharks didn't lose their legs. They lost their composure.
It was only a one-goal game late in the second period. San Jose goaltender Antti Niemi(notes) had just made a highlight-reel, potentially momentum-changing save, robbing Alex Edler with his right pad. Then Vancouver defenseman Kevin Bieksa(notes) cross-checked San Jose star Patrick Marleau(notes) at least twice. Marleau turned around and took exception, and they dropped the gloves.
I give Marleau credit for sticking up for himself. Former teammate Jeremy Roenick(notes) had called him "gutless" on television just last week, and by fighting for the first time since Dec. 20, 2007, he was making a statement for himself and his team.
Problem was, he got pummeled. Bieksa ripped off his helmet and landed some good ones, leaving some marks, most notably a bruise on his left temple. As much as Marleau shrugged it off afterward – "I've got an older brother, so I'm used to getting those," he said – the damage was done.
"Yeah, you know, we've seen that before with Kevin," Eager said of Bieksa, a pending unrestricted free agent. "It's sad that someone's got to sign him for big money when he's a phony. He goes after our top player, and he's been asked many times before [to fight by] lots of players throughout the league and he's declined, so …"
Eager came out for revenge and drilled Daniel Sedin(notes) from behind into the boards with 28 seconds left in the second. Eager said he deserved a penalty even though Sedin "knows what he's doing there" and "turns his back." Eager got away with a two-minute minor for boarding, but he should have received a five-minute major and could receive supplemental discipline. (A fine? A suspension? Are you kidding? This is the NHL. Your guess is as good as mine.)
"Oh, I'm sure I'll be getting a phone call," Eager said. "I always do."
The Sharks killed that penalty. But then Eager took a tripping penalty 6:57 into the third – "It's the conference finals. I don't know if that's the appropriate call there," he said – and the Canucks capitalized with a power-play goal by Chris Higgins(notes). Vancouver led, 4-2.
Then the Sharks were called for having too many men on the ice. Daniel Sedin scored his second power-play goal, the Canucks' third of the game. Vancouver led, 5-2.
"We didn't see that coming," Couture said. "We said to stay out of the box; we didn't. We said we got to kill the penalties; we didn't. And the next thing you know, you look up and it's 7-2 or whatever it was."
The truth is, the game started going bad for the Sharks even before the Bieksa-Marleau bout and the Eager-Sedin hit. The Sharks went more than 10 minutes without a shot in the second period. Then they botched a forecheck they had worked on since September. Higgins hit Bieksa in stride with a sweet pass, and Bieksa beat Niemi between the legs to break a 2-2 tie.
"From there," McLellan said, "it started to unravel."
McLellan won't name the players who didn't show up to compete, but we can guess the list is long and includes big names like Dan Boyle(notes), Ryane Clowe(notes), Dany Heatley(notes), Joe Pavelski(notes), Devin Setoguchi(notes) and Kyle Wellwood(notes). Did we miss anybody?
The Sharks haven't beaten the Canucks in regulation this season, and the Canucks are starting to roll now. Bieksa has scored in back-to-back games and had a Gordie Howe hat trick Wednesday. Not only did Daniel score twice, but twin brother Henrik had three assists, so the Sedins are producing. The Canucks scored seven goals in a blowout victory and Ryan Kesler(notes), who factored into 11 of their 14 goals in the second round, didn't record a point.
Marleau was asked point-blank if the Canucks were just better.
"Well, he said, "we haven't played our best yet."
They better soon. Because this looked like a team that gave up – and the most notable exception, amazingly, was Eager, scoring that garbage goal, looking down on Roberto Luongo(notes) like some conquering hero. The Sharks need to look somewhere else.
"We've got some work to do," McLellan said. "We've got some guys that need to ask themselves some questions, answer them and pull the skates a little tighter."