SAN JOSE, Calif. - For all the talk about how this version of the San Jose Sharks was different, the disappointing end to the season was all too familiar for an organization still waiting for its first trip to the Stanley Cup.
The Sharks were eliminated from the playoffs Tuesday night with a 2-1 loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, failing to convert on a few agonizingly close chances that will likely haunt the team until next season starts.
San Jose has the second-longest playoff streak in the NHL, having made it to the post-season nine straight times. But every one of those trips has ended short of the Stanley Cup.
"It's heartbreaking," centre Logan Couture said. "It's tough. It's been a long year. We battled hard to get where we were. We made some changes and played a good first round then forced, I think the best team in the league, to seven games and almost beat them in their building. It's tough to take."
While the disappointment is similar, the feeling is very different than a year ago when the Sharks lost in five games in the opening round to the St. Louis Blues.
"I can say it was better than last year but it's still not acceptable to us," defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. "We want to win and we didn't do that. But we gave it everything we had."
The strong finish to the regular season, a first-round sweep against Vancouver and a tight series against the defending champions might be enough to persuade general manager Doug Wilson to give this core one more shot at the Stanley Cup.
Stars Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Dan Boyle all have one year remaining on their contracts before they can become unrestricted free agents.
Wilson appeared to start the rebuilding process when he dealt veterans Douglas Murray, Michal Handzus and Ryane Clowe before the trade deadline. But that sparked the team and made it more balanced than star dependent. Now it looks like the Sharks might just need a little bit of tinkering.
"The group that we ended up with after the trade deadline could have went one way or the other," coach Todd McLellan said. "We're in transition a little bit as an organization, obviously, with some of the moves we made. I thought the way they banded together and the way they played for each other and with each other was exceptional. It was a really positive sign for our organization, not only in the playoffs but moving forward. It's not about one or two guys, it's about the group as a whole. They accepted that and I think we have something to build on moving forward."
This season marked a bit of a changing of the guard in San Jose with the 24-year-old Couture taking over some the leadership role from stalwarts Thornton, Marleau and Boyle.
Couture led the team with 21 goals in the regular season, drew the toughest defensive assignments in the playoffs and overcame a sprained ankle to score the overtime winner in Game 3 for the Sharks. Couture had his chances in Game 7 but had one deflection trickle just wide and was too often turned aside by Jonathan Quick.
The Sharks nearly got that elusive equalizer in the third period when Pavelski was robbed by a sprawling Quick on a rebound attempt with a mostly open net in the closing minutes.
"It's frustrating," Pavelski said. "We never felt overwhelmed against this team. We knew we could beat them right away so it's disappointing."
San Jose lost all four games in Los Angeles in the series. The Sharks' best chance to win came in Game 2 when they had a 3-2 lead in the closing minutes before allowing a 5-on-3 goal and a power-play goal in the final 2 minutes to lose.
San Jose managed to win all three home games but failed to break through at Staples Center.
"We'd love to go back and play Game 2 over again, the last four or five minutes," McLellan said. "That's probably one that we needed and didn't get."
The Sharks clearly missed forward Raffi Torres against the Kings after he was suspended for the rest of the series for an illegal hit on Los Angeles' Jarret Stoll.
Torres' absence forced Pavelski to move from third line centre to a wing on the second line and took away from the scoring depth that was so key down the stretch and against the Canucks.
Torres provided a big spark with his speed and physical play after being acquired at the trade deadline from Phoenix. Now San Jose has to decide whether to try to bring him back next season as Torres is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in July.
The other big off-season decision will be what to do with forward Marty Havlat, who has two years and $10 million left on his contract. Havlat got hurt in Game 1 of the first round and tried to come back in Game 3 against the Kings but only managed to play 4 minutes, leaving the team in a lurch.
Havlat has missed 51 games in his two seasons with the Sharks and could be a candidate for a buyout if the Sharks decide that money could be better used elsewhere with the salary cap going down next season.