SAN JOSE, Calif. – Shortly after his San Jose Sharks were swept out of the Western Conference final by Chicago, coach Todd McLellan tried to draw inspiration from the Blackhawks.
Just one year after losing in five games to Detroit in the conference final, the Blackhawks are headed to the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1992 after outskating and outplaying the Sharks in the four-game sweep.
“I think we can look at what the Blackhawks did last year and how they grew through losing,” McLellan said. “Sometimes it’s part of the process. . . . Their team has been there and done it. They’ve learned through it. I’d like to think we could be that team.”
Unfortunately for the Sharks, there are plenty of differences between the Chicago team that fell to Detroit and this year’s San Jose team. The Blackhawks were a young team with plenty of emerging stars in their 20s, while most of the Sharks’ top players will be in their 30s next season.
With key players like leading goal-scorer Patrick Marleau and goalie Evgeni Nabokov set to become unrestricted free agents, captain Rob Blake contemplating retirement at age 40, and the need to stay within the salary cap, there are questions about whether this team can—or should—be kept together for another run.
“I definitely believe in this group,” McLellan said after the game. “You know, there’s going to be a lot of people sitting behind a computer and a typewriter writing their stories tomorrow. I know exactly how they’re going to come out because that’s what you guys do. But when you’re in between those walls, in those bricks, we believe in that group. We have that experience now. We’ve gone through that. Maybe we can expand on it.”
The Sharks accomplished plenty this season, from posting the top record in the Western Conference for the second straight year to making it to the conference final for the first time in six years.
After being labelled playoff underachievers following last year’s first-round loss as the top seed to Anaheim, the Sharks overcame a few bad breaks to beat Colorado in six games in the first round before ousting longtime nemesis Detroit in five games in the second round.
But the season still ended up short of the ultimate goal.
“I think we set our bar high and anything short of a Stanley Cup would be disappointing,” Nabokov said. “It’s a disappointing season again because of the expectations.”
The Sharks struggled against the younger and quicker Blackhawks. While three of the four games were highly competitive—two one-goal losses and a 4-2 defeat in the clincher after a late empty-net goal—the Sharks got swept for just the second time in franchise history.
“There are a lot of people who are going to say it was a one-way series,” defenceman Dan Boyle said. “Anyone who knows anything about hockey knows that three of those four games could certainly have gone our way.”
The Sharks’ failure in the series can be attributed to their inability to solve Chicago goalie Antti Niemi. They talked all series about the need to get pucks high because Niemi was a butterfly goalie who dropped to the ice, but only Marleau was able to put that to use by scoring five of San Jose’s seven goals in the series.
Marleau has shouldered the bulk of the criticism for San Jose’s past playoff failures but was at his best when it mattered this post-season. He scored two game-winning goals against Detroit before breaking through with five against the Blackhawks.
“It comes down to winning,” he said. “You could take those away if we were still playing. I’m disappointed with getting this far and coming up short, so it’s not fun by any means.”
Marleau did not want to talk about his impending free agency after the loss, saying he loves San Jose and will wait to see how everything plays out.
The only forward to score a goal other than Marleau in the series was rookie Logan Couture, who got the first goal in Game 4. The second line of Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and Devin Setoguchi that carried the Sharks for much of the first two rounds with 16 goals, managed no goals on 37 shots in the series.
Joe Thornton was held in check by Dave Bolland for much of the series, managing only one assist in four games.He was on the ice for seven of Chicago’s 10 even-strength goals for the series and had a minus-5 rating for the four games.
Dany Heatley, the major off-season acquisition, never fully recovered from a groin injury that forced him to miss Game 3 in the first round against Colorado. He managed just two goals in 14 post-season games, lacking the burst that has made him one of the league’s top goal scorers.
Without the production from those core players, no one else stepped into the void.
“It’s not always the superstars that have to get it done,” McLellan said. “There has to be some grunt work done by some of the other people. Guys that have been there for us and went dry. To get to that ultimate level where the Blackhawks are going now, you need those people.”