SAN JOSE- You could hear the hooting and hollering from the opposite side of the arena when walking into the San Jose Sharks dressing room for post-game interviews on Wednesday night. After a 5-1 loss (3-1, with two empty nets) in Game 7, the Sharks became just the fourth team to blow a 3-0 series lead and lose a playoff series 4-3. (Fun fact per Josh Dubow of the AP: two of the three previous clubs to blow 3-0 leads won the Stanley Cup the following year).
This series loss, as acknowledged by both head coach Todd McLellan and alternate captain Patrick Marleau, is the lowest of the low during their respective Shark careers. So the million dollar question is, how did this happen? Who deserves the most blame?
Some will point out the goalie had a poor save percentage, others will say that their best players weren’t their best players, and others will come down hard on the power-play for not cashing in. These are all legitimate gripes. The root cause of these problems as the series evolved was that the Sharks got away from what made them so great during the beginning of the year.
Before rookie sensation Tomas Hertl suffered his knee injury in December, the Sharks were built on their ability to roll out three tremendous lines. Hertl rose to superstardom on the left wing of Joe Thornton and Brent Burns.
Nobody will soon forget Hertl’s between the legs goal vs the New York Rangers. He is one heck of a gifted young player with enormous offensive potential.
Hertl played games two and three of this series in his customary spot with Thornton and Burns, and the Sharks built up a 3-0 lead. In three of the next four games, Hertl played primarily with James Sheppard and Tommy Wingels on a third line that struggled. While on this line, Hertl’s opportunities to make plays in the offensive zone were limited. Sheppard struggled in the face-off circle and the Kings bottom six out-played San Jose’s as the series wore on.
Given how dominant the Hertl, Thornton, and Burns line was in Game 3, it was extremely perplexing to see them split apart the following game. Meanwhile, as has been discussed here ad nauseum, the Sharks have been significantly more successful in recent years with Pavelski as their third line center. As they built up the series lead, Pavelski was in that customary spot.
However, things just got weird after an overtime victory in game 3. The lines flip flopped for Game 4, then flipped back to start Game 5. But just a mere four shifts into Game 5, they flipped back again. Things only got worse after that in Game 5 and then the line combinations ended up all sorts of weird. In Game 6 the lines went back to Pavelski at center and the team played much better than they did in Game 5 but in Game 7 the lines went back to those that were primarily used in the dreadful Game 5 loss.
Not to mention, the Sharks elected to go away from their No. 1 goaltender in Game 6, which in itself was a valid choice given Niemi’s struggles but after all the line shuffling the previous game, there didn’t seem to be any sense of normalcy, nor comfort in what this team was about. In Game 6 they also finally scratched tough guy Mike Brown and got veteran set-up man Marty Havlat back in the lineup but then they went back to Brown for Game 7. The team was struggling to score, the bottom six was getting out-played, and yet the team’s fourth line fighter with extremely limited offensive ability plays in six of seven games? Whereas Tyler Kennedy, acquired in the offseason in large part due to his knack for big game performances with the Pittsburgh Penguins, doesn’t play in a single game?
The Sharks were built on depth this season. Did Niemi struggle? Certainly. Did the top players struggle towards end of the series? No question. But the Chicago Blackhawks won the 2013 Stanley Cup with their captain Jonathan Toews scoring just three points in his first nine playoff games. Sometimes the top dogs aren’t always producing. That is when you need depth to shine, and the Sharks got away from an identity of three deep down the middle, spread out the talent, increase the depth.
San Jose had the roster capable of making a much deeper run, but in this pundit’s opinion, it wasn’t nearly utilized as well as it could have been. The club’s hockey staff has been around for quite some time McLellan since 2008, GM Doug Wilson since 2003. They have both put together a great body of work in their respective roles but in a results oriented business like professional sports, one has to wonder if it’s not time for some fresh decision makers. The team might have a hard time selling the same old ship to it’s fan base after what just took place.
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