It really did seem like it was going to be the San Jose Sharks‘ year.
Just a few weeks ago, they were resting up after dispatching the favoured Los Angeles Kings in a surprisingly swift five games. When the Nashville Predators knocked off the Anaheim Ducks in seven, that set San Jose up with an unexpected home ice advantage, and they used it to jump out to a 2-0 series lead. After years of playoff disappointment, it looked like everything was falling into place for the Sharks to finally exceed expectations, and maybe even win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
Things change quickly in the post-season. After failing to close out the series in Nashville on Monday, the Sharks now face a Game 7 tonight — one that most didn’t think they’d need against the wildcard Predators.
The Sharks still head into tonight as the favourite; they’ve got home ice, and have won all three games played at the SAP Center in the series. They’re the better team on paper. And a win would send them to a Conference Final matchup against the St. Louis Blues that they’d have a good chance to win.
But a loss… a loss, and we’re right back to where we always seems to be with this team. So today, let’s take a look back over the Sharks’ history of playoff disappointment.
1991 – 1999: THE EARLY YEARS
The team: We’ll lump the first eight years of franchise history into one entry, since they really didn’t have anything to do with the Sharks’ current reputation. After two years of record-breaking expansion futility, the Sharks broke through with their first decent season in 1993-94, making the playoffs and then shocking the Detroit Red Wings in the opening round.
They’d win another round in 1995, this time against the Calgary Flames in a Game 7 OT, before suffering through two more miserable years followed by two years of first round exits.
The disappointment: Any playoff loss hurts, but it would be hard to call any of these post-season performances a disappointment. The Sharks were never favoured, and in fact were never even a .500 team. And looking back, only their second round matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1994, in which they were one Johan Garpenlov crossbar away from advancing, feels like a series that got away.
Heartbreak rating: 2/10. Sure, the first few years of incompetence were rough. But those upsets against the Red Wings and Flames were fun, and the rest of it pretty much played out according to script.
The team: The Sharks crack the .500 mark for the first time in franchise history. That’s enough to sneak them into the playoffs as an eight seed, where they draw the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Blues. Nobody gives them much of a chance, but they jump out to a 3-1 series lead before pulling off a Game 7 upset that’s punctuated with Owen Nolan’s long-distance dagger.
The disappointment: Coming off the high of that win, the Sharks sputter out of the gate against the Dallas Stars in Round 2. They’re shut out in each of the first two games and lose the series in five.
Heartbreak rating: 1/10. Maybe it didn’t end up being a Cinderella run, but that Blues upset was one of the highlights of franchise history.
The team: The Sharks record a franchise-best 95 points, and finish second in the Pacific. This version of the team was led by Nolan and a 21-year-old Patrick Marleau, supported by a cast of “Wait, that guy played for the Sharks?” veterans like Gary Suter, Mike Ricci and Vincent Damphousse. Teemu Selanne arrives late in the season, and Evgeni Nabokov earns the Calder Trophy for his work in goal.
The disappointment: In a Round 1 rematch with the Blues, the Sharks drop a six-game series that could have gone either way. The turning point comes in Game 5, in which the Sharks take a 2-1 lead into the third but end up dropping a 3-2 decision on overtime on Bryce Salvador’s winner.
Heartbreak rating: 3/10. Expectations are slowly but surely increasing, and simply making an appearance in the post-season no longer feels like mission accomplished. Still, if you have to lose to someone, it was kind of nice to see it be the Blues. Those guys are stuck with a reputation for never winning anything in the playoffs.
The team: The Sharks record 99 points to lead their division for the first time. It’s a veteran group – Adam Graves even makes an appearance – and it leans heavily on its goaltending duo of Nabokov and rookie Miikka Kiprusoff. They make it out of the First Round, beating the then-Phoenix Coyotes in six games and setting up a Second Round meeting with the Colorado Avalanche.
The disappointment: The Sharks lead the series three separate times, but can’t close. They hold a 3-2 series lead heading into Game 6 at home, but lose in overtime on a Peter Forsberg goal in a game marked by a third period earthquake. Then they drop a 1-0 decision in the seventh game, with Selanne missing an open net early on that could have changed the course of the game.
Heartbreak rating: 5/10. The loss to the Avalanche may not have been an upset, but the way it played out left a mark.
The team: After what seemed like a breakout season, the Sharks unravel in 2002-03 and miss the playoffs. They fire coach Darryl Sutter in December, and GM Dean Lombardi follows a few months later. Spoiler alert: Those two guys show up again later.
The disappointment: The Sharks don’t even come close to the post-season, finishing 19 points back. They do wind up with two first round picks in the ridiculously stacked 2003 draft, but can only turn them into Milan Michalek and Steve Bernier. The two players taken right after the Sharks’ picks: Ryan Suter and Zach Parise.
Heartbreak rating: 2/10. Disappointment? Definitely. Frustration? Sure. But this can’t really qualify as heartbreak.
The team: The Sharks roar back into the playoff picture with a 104-point season. They’re not exactly stacked – Nils Ekman is their second leading scorer – but they’re well-balanced and tough to score on. They beat the Blues and the Avalanche in the opening two rounds to advance to the Conference Final for the first time in franchise history. (That Avs series gets a little dicey – the Sharks take a 3-0 series lead, then lose back-to-back overtime games before winning game six – but otherwise it’s a fairly smooth ride.)
The disappointment: They end up facing the Flames, who are led by a couple of familiar faces: Sutter behind the bench and Kiprusoff in goal. The Sharks are the favorites, and a trip to the Cup final seems in sight. But they drop the first two games of the series at home, and end up losing in six.
Heartbreak rating: 4/10. On the one hand, the franchise is headed in the right direction again. On the other, they let a golden chance at a Final appearance slip through their fingers. They probably can’t wait to get back out there. Sure hope the league doesn’t cancel the next season.
The team: Early in the year, they pull off the biggest trade in team history by acquiring Joe Thornton from the Boston Bruins. He goes on to win the Art Ross and Hart Trophy, and somehow turns Jonathan Cheechoo into a 56-goal scorer. Nobody can believe the Bruins soured on Thornton just because he had a few bad playoff years and… wait, where’s that ominous music coming from?
The disappointment: After knocking off the Predators in the opening round, the Sharks blow a 2-0 series lead and drop their Second Round matchup with the Edmonton Oilers in six.
Heartbreak rating: 5/10. In an upset-heavy Western Conference, the path to the Cup final was once again looking clear. The Sharks’ reputation isn’t fully in bloom yet, but the seeds have been planted.
The team: Thornton and Marleau form a deadly one-two punch at centre, and a young blue-line features Christian Ehrhoff, Matt Carle and a 19-year-old Marc-Edouard Vlasic. They post a franchise-best 107 points and roll over the Predators in the opening round for the second straight year. That sets up a heavyweight matchup with the 113-point Red Wings in Round 2.
The disappointment: The Sharks take a 2-1 series lead and hold a one-goal lead in the final minute of Game 4, but once again they can’t close. The Wings get the tying goal from Robert Lang with 30 seconds left and the winner from Matthieu Schneider in overtime. They don’t look back, allowing only one Sharks goal while winning the next two games to end the series.
Heartbreak rating: 6/10. The Red Wings were a great team, but the Sharks had them on the ropes and let them escape. This is becoming a pattern.
The team: Another franchise record for points — this time with 108 — and another First Round win, this time over Calgary. They need seven games for that one, though, so nerves are already frayed when they head to their Second Round matchup against the Stars.
The disappointment: The Stars series is a disaster from the opener, as Dallas wins each of the first three games, including two in overtime. To their credit, the Sharks push back, winning the next two and forcing overtime in Game 6. It turns out to be the longest game in Sharks history, dragging into a fourth overtime period before Brenden Morrow ends the Sharks’ season.
Heartbreak rating: 7/10. The “playoff underachievers” reputation has been firmly affixed at this point. But hey, at least they didn’t fold up when they were down 3-0 in the series, even though everyone knows that teams never blow that lead in the playoffs.
The team: Welcome to the Todd McLellan era, as the Sharks make Ron Wilson the fall guy for all that playoff disappointment. McLellan leads them to their best regular season ever, a Presidents’ Trophy-winning 117-point campaign.
Thornton and Marleau have been joined by Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi by this point, and Rob Blake arrives as a free agent. The Sharks head into the playoffs as a massive favourite over the eight-seed Ducks. They’d better not lose in the second round again, am I right?
The disappointment: The Ducks walk into San Jose and take the first two games, and never look back. Thornton tries to rally the troops by fighting Ryan Getzlaf off the opening draw in Game 6, but it doesn’t work – the Ducks win the game 4-1 and take the series.
Heartbreak rating: 9/10. The Sharks outshot the Ducks in every game, but managed only ten goals and were shutout twice. At this point, they’re the go-to “choker” punchline for NHL fans. And with Wilson gone, the blame has firmly shifted to Marleau and Thornton; Marleau will be stripped of the captaincy over the summer.
The team: After the previous year’s disaster, the Sharks posted another strong regular season that nobody cared about because by this point it was all about the playoffs. They posted the best record in the Western Conference, setting up another battle with an eight seed – this time, the Avalanche. Things got off to a rocky start, with the Avs taking a 2-1 series lead with a Game 3 overtime win in which the Sharks score into their own net. But San Jose fought back, winning the series in six and then knocking out the Red Wings in five to return to the Conference Final for the first time since 2004. Things were finally turning around!
The disappointment: They faced the Blackhawks, and were swept in four straight.
Heartbreak rating: 5/10. After the debacle of 2009, this almost felt like a relief. The loss was disappointing, sure, but at least it was over quickly, and at least they won a few rounds first. So… progress?
The team: Blake and Nabokov are gone, and Thornton is the new captain. Another 100+ point season, another division title, blah blah blah, get to the playoffs.
The disappointment: After eliminating the Kings in six and the Wings in seven, the Sharks faced the Canucks in the Conference Final. For once, San Jose was the underdog – Vancouver had run away with the Presidents’ Trophy – and they dropped the first two games before returning home to win Game 3. The turning point came in Game 4, which the Sharks dominated. But they take four minor penalties in less than three minutes midway through the second, and the Canucks convert those into three power-play goals to seal the win. The series would end back in Vancouver in Game 5, thanks to one of the strangest overtime goals in recent memory:
Heartbreak rating: 6/10. Sharks fans had to be getting just a little bit numb by this point. The stanchion goal was a nice touch, though.
The team: Early in the off-season, the Sharks sent Setoguchi to the Minnesota Wild for Brent Burns, a robbery of a deal that would pay off down the line. But the early impact was minimal; with 96 points, the Sharks posted their worst regular season since cratering back in 2003, and went into the First Round as underdogs against the Blues. Hey, maybe taking some of the pressure off would get them over the hump.
The disappointment: Nope. After winning Game 1 in overtime, the Sharks dropped four straight.
Heartbreak rating: 4/10. The Sharks should just mark the opening of the playoffs by replacing the national anthem with the first verse of The Sound of Silence.
The team: In the lockout-shortened season, the Sharks made the playoffs as a sixth seed and draw a tough matchup with the Canucks. But they won relatively easily, sweeping the series in four straight to signal that, finally, a change had come to— oh wait, here come the Kings.
The disappointment: By this point, Lombardi and Sutter are running the show in L.A. The two rivals go toe-to-toe in a classic seven-game series, with the home team winning each of the first six to set up a deciding Game 7 showdown in Los Angeles. A pair of Justin Williams goals gave the defending champs a 2-0 lead in the second, but the Sharks got one back early in the third. That set up a dramatic finish, one in which Joe Pavelski finds himself with an open net with five minutes left.
Heartbreak rating: 6/10. At least that’s the worst thing that could ever happen to us against the Kings, said Sharks fans, not even pretending to believe it.
The team: Do we have to? This just seems cruel.
The disappointment: You know how this one goes. A 111-point season, a First Round rematch with the Kings, two blowout wins at home, and an overtime road win to take a 3-0 series lead.
And then, the collapse.
Over the final four games of the series, the Sharks weren’t just swept — they were decimated, outscored by a total of 18-5 and losing each game by three or more.
Heartbreak rating: 10/10. This is it. Rock bottom. The nadir of sports fandom. This is what it’s like to see all your worst fears played out in front of the world, for a full week, and be unable to look away even though you know exactly how it’s going to end. Nothing can hurt you anymore after this, because you’re already dead inside.
The team: GM Doug Wilson promises to strip the team down and start over, but doesn’t. Thornton is stripped of the captaincy, then tells Wilson to “stop lying” and “shut his mouth.” The team misses the playoffs, and McLellan is fired and banished to spend the rest of his days wasting away in a penal colony.
Todd McLellan, left, and Peter Chiarelli, President of Hockey Operations and General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers, after the Oilers announced McLellan as their new head coach on Tuesday May 19, 2015. (Jason Franson/CP)
The disappointment: Actually, compared to 2014, all of that sounds pretty good.
Heartbreak rating: 1/10. Fun fact: A shark’s heart is a two-chambered S-shaped tube located near its head. Bonus fun fact: The “S” stands for “sadness.”
The team: And that brings us to this year. With Wilson’s promised rebuild never materializing, we end up getting what could be the last shot for the Marleau/Thornton-era version of the Sharks. They put up a respectable 98 points, good for third in the Pacific, and then raise eyebrows around the hockey world by stomping the Kings in the opening round.
That leaves them well-rested and with home-ice advantage against the wildcard Predators in a series that everyone agrees they should win. The home team wins each of the first six games, sending it back to San Jose for a decisive Game 7.
The disappointment: To be determined.
Heartbreak rating: Good luck and Godspeed, Sharks fans. After 15 seasons of misery, you’ve earned some happiness. The rest of will be rooting for you. We’ll just, uh, be doing it from as far away as possible. You know, just in case something terrible happens.