By Allan Muir
We all knew coming into this Los Angeles-San Jose series that a team capable of contending for the Stanley Cup was going home early.
We just didn't expect they'd pack it in quite like this.
Despite the advantages of home ice and the first goal courtesy of fill-in defenseman Matt Irwin, the Sharks were smoked 5-1 by the Kings in Game 7, becoming just the fourth team in NHL history to collapse after building a 3-0 lead in a seven-game series.
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The Sharks...well, of course it happened to the Sharks. It takes a special franchise to lose the way they do. They've been good enough to be one of just two teams to play at least 100 playoff games over the past decade, but have never made it as far as the Stanley Cup Final.
There have been some crushing losses along the way, but this was an even crueler betrayal.
A team can be knocked out of the first round and still hold their heads high. Look at the Blue Jackets, who went down swinging in Game 6 against the Penguins.
And there's no shame in losing to the Kings, a team two years removed from a championship and fully capable of bringing the Cup back to Southern California this time around. At least there shouldn't be.
But here it is all just the same. After dominating the first two games and eking out a win in the third everything went south for the Sharks, pushing them toward a winner-take-all showdown.
And the thing is, they were not terrible in this game. It was right there for them to grab through the first 40 minutes, arguably their two best periods since Game 2. But while they fumbled away their chances--or had them stolen by Jonathan Quick--the Kings pounced on theirs.
The first L.A. goal came from the stick of Drew Doughty, who pounded home a rebound 4:57 into the second period, just as a five-on-three chance turned into a five-on-four. The dagger was driven home with just 1:23 left in the frame when Anze Kopitar blew by Matt Nieto and found himself alone in front of Antti Niemi, who was comically baffled by the forehand/backhand deke that gave the Kings a 2-1 lead.
And then, with their season on the line, the Sharks withered away in the third, landing just two shots through the first 12 minutes. By the time they generated a big push, it was too late.
"Every year you lose is pretty low," Logan Couture said in the aftermath. "But this one is the type of series that will rip your heart out. It hurts. It’s going to be a long summer thinking about this one, and what we let slip away."
The truth though, is that it didn't slip away. The Sharks were outcoached. They were outworked. Their top six disappeared -- other than Joe Pavelski, who is the noblest player ever to wear teal. Their power play went into hibernation (that 0-for-15 finish -- ouch). And while Quick was putting together the first draft of his Conn Smythe application at one end of the ice, Niemi couldn't give them the big stop at the other.
They were beaten, plain and simple.
The story should be about a resilient Los Angeles club that made adjustments and found the will to win where so many before them had fallen short. Eventually, that's the way it'll be told.
But for now it's just about a perennially disappointing team that found a new way to prove it wasn't nearly as good as everyone thought.
Some thoughts in the aftermath of this historic series:
• Jonathan Quick: The Save.
That's the game, right there. Scratch that -- it's the series. It's 1-1 midway through the second. The Sharks get their first sustained pressure of the game. One shot by Pavelski. Another. And then Patrick Marleau, pouncing on a free bunny just outside the crease with Quick down and out...until he wasn't. He flings himself across the crease, glove darting to the exact spot that Marleau targeted. And with that he makes the stop of the playoffs.
Well, so far, anyway. Quick has at least another four games ahead of him, and after watching him morph into 2012 Conn Smythe form over these past three games -- two goals allowed on 96 shots, a .979 save percentage -- who doubts that he can top it?
• The Big Question: Does San Jose GM Doug Wilson do a favor for every coach-less team in the league (including, apparently, Vancouver) by firing Todd McLellan?
Something's going to change after this. It has to. And in a perfect world, the price would be paid by the men on the ice.
The problem is, Wilson painted himself into a corner with aging vets Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Both are solid regular season performers, but neither player did anything in this series to alter a reputation for coming up small in the playoffs. The captain went pointless over the last four games. Marleau was blanked in the last three.
But both are armed with three-year, no-movement extensions they signed in January. They're not going anywhere.
The same can't be said for Dan Boyle, another vet whose aging legs betrayed him time and again against the Kings. He'll certainly be let go, but that's attrition not change.
So that leaves McLellan to fall on the sword. But should he?
The bold move for Wilson would be to leave him in place. Peter Chiarelli kept the faith with Claude Julien after his Bruins blew a 3-0 lead back in 2010 to the Flyers. A year later, they drank from the Cup together.
That's not to say the hockey gods will smile on San Jose next year to make up for this suffering, just that Chiarelli recognized Julien was still a good coach. So is McLellan. He earned a Calder Cup as a head coach in 2003 and was an assistant to Mike Babcock for Detroit's 2008 Cup win. He hasn't gotten any dumber in the interim. So unless Wilson sees someone on the market who would be an obvious improvement, he should be patient with his coach and aggressive addressing the makeup of his team. That blueline might be a good place to start.
• If every Shark raised his game the way Pavelski did tonight it'd be the Kings cleaning out their lockers tomorrow. After a sub-par performance in Game 6, he was determined to be a factor tonight. He launched 11 shots on Quick, was aggressive defensively (that one-on-one against Doughty was a piece of work) and competed from start to finish. It wasn't enough to will his team to victory, but it was the sort of leadership that suggests he'll be wearing the C in San Jose before long.