ANAHEIM, Calif. - When general manager Doug Wilson clears his head after his San Jose Sharks' biggest post-season flop to date, he'll have to decide whether it's worth keeping together a team that plays incredible hockey until the games that matter the most.
The Sharks made an early exit from the NHL playoffs for the fourth straight season Monday night, finished off in six games by the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks. San Jose was thoroughly outplayed by a savvy, veteran-led team that saved its best performances for the post-season.
Whenever San Jose hangs its Presidents Trophy banner, it'll be a constant reminder of failure, not achievement. The Sharks were built to contend for a title this season, and their inability even to take the first step in that direction could mean the end of patience from their fans and management.
"It's just disappointing. I can't say much else besides that," Patrick Marleau said. "I think having the team that we've had, going through a great regular season, we expect more out of ourselves, and we didn't live up to that."
Marleau's unease in the spotlight is one reason why outsiders question his ability to be an NHL captain, but he's hardly the only player who will be under scrutiny when the Sharks clean out their lockers Wednesday. Every member of San Jose's talented core will be questioned for their effort against the Ducks, who outplayed the Sharks nearly every period of the series.
Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer led Anaheim's effort to shut down the Sharks' high-scoring lines. Joe Pavelski, Milan Michalek and Ryane Clowe combined for 70 goals in the regular season as the Sharks' second line, but the teammates had just two goals in the post-season - none by Pavelski, who also struggled on faceoffs.
Trade-deadline acquisition Travis Moen was a bust against his former team, going scoreless with a minus-4. Defenceman Christian Ehrhoff also didn't get on the scoresheet, and former Richard Trophy winner Jonathan Cheechoo managed just one goal.
But most fingers will be pointed at Marleau, Joe Thornton and Evgeni Nabokov, who all had unimpressive series exactly when the Sharks needed them to raise their games. Thornton led the Sharks in scoring, but with just five points in six games, giving credence to the career-long criticism of his post-season effort.
At least Thornton appeared to take it personally, albeit in an unproductive way: He challenged Ryan Getzlaf to a fight at the opening faceoff of Game 6. He rarely threatened to score afterward, even during ample power play time.
Thornton left Anaheim without speaking to reporters. He's unlikely to be traded, but the former MVP might not recognize the team to which he returns after his wedding in June.
San Jose fell too far into a hole in losing the first two games at home, where the Sharks rarely lost all season. They didn't even seem terribly worried at the time, but coach Todd McLellan and Thornton insisting San Jose had outplayed Anaheim to that point.
"Those first two games at home were the key," Nabokov said after Game 6. "You lose two games and go down, and it's hard after that. ... Does it really matter to say it's my fault or it's not my fault? We win or lose as a team."
Yet Nabokov clearly didn't match Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller, an NHL playoff newcomer who shut out the Sharks twice in six games before a near-shutout in the clincher. Nabokov turns 34 over the summer, and his decade as San Jose's starting goalie is at its most tenuous position since Vesa Toskala briefly took away the job a few years ago.
Jeremy Roenick's two decades in the NHL could be over after his one-point performance against Anaheim. The Sharks' emotional sparkplug has all but said he's tired of the grind.
Defenceman Rob Blake sounded interested in continuing his career into his 40s, saying he'll take a month before deciding. The Sharks newcomer, who signed a one-year contract for a Stanley Cup shot, can't be blamed for their past failures. He had four points in a solid series against Anaheim, providing improved play that wasn't matched by his teammates.
"Our core didn't elevate it as much as their guys did," Blake said. "It's tough to win when you don't have that level that you can raise it up to."