Sharks clinging to hope with future in the balance

The Maple Leafs allowed three goals in the second period in a 4-1 loss to the Sharks, whose Joe Thornton notched two assists.

TORONTO — “It would be nice to win every game,” Marc-Edouard Vlasic was saying on Thursday morning in a manner that suggested he’d run the numbers. Yes, these San Jose Sharks essentially have to pull off the near-impossible for another chance to chase the Stanley Cup.

The dire reality of the situation is not being swept under the carpet in this dressing room. Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Vlasic … one by one, the Sharks cited the need to go unbeaten — or very close to it — over the last dozen games.

At least they took care of business in Toronto when not doing so would have amounted to waving a giant white flag. It was a start, a necessary one, but the task before them remained enormous with six points still to make up.

“You just kind of take it day by day to be honest with you,” Thornton explained after the 4-1 victory over the Maple Leafs. “You can’t look too far ahead and you’re definitely not looking behind you. You’ve just got to stay in the moment.”

If only it were so simple.

There are a lot of different forces tugging at the string binding this organization together. Heck, it’s only been a week since Thornton took a pretty pointed shot at Doug Wilson in response to some comments the general manager made about Thornton’s stripped captaincy during an event with season-ticket holders.

And while that obviously made big headlines and will be focused on for the foreseeable future, it is really only a drop in the bucket.

The predominant feeling around the Sharks during a stop at Air Canada Centre was one of anger, and of frustration. Who can blame them? This has been a top-calibre, envy-of-the-league team — one with the second-highest cumulative win total (450) and winning percentage (.639) since the start of 2005-06 season — and they are running out of runway.

For this year, of course, but also likely for those beyond it. Change is on the horizon.

It’s going to take the passing of time and someone investing the effort into writing a book before we have a true picture on why the Sharks never managed to get their hands on the Stanley Cup.

There’s a good tale to be told.

This has been a great team that never quite was great enough and over the last seven weeks they haven’t even been good. The win over the hapless Leafs on Thursday was just San Jose’s seventh in 21 games.

Barring a miracle finish, it will be a season-defining stretch. Most forecasted the Sharks slipping a bit after a turbulent summer, but no one figured they’d be chasing teams like Winnipeg and Calgary in the Western Conference standings.

“Every year is a different year,” said even-handed coach Todd McLellan. “You can have the exact same players and you have to reinvent your team and reinvent your identity. At times we’ve done a very good job of that and other times we’ve struggled.

“The inconsistency throughout the year with our group has been one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had and we’re still in that phase. If we’re going to get to where we want to go we’re going to have to be consistent.”

Should they fall short, there will be plenty of finger-pointing.

That appeared to start with Thornton and fellow veteran Patrick Marleau last summer and won’t stop there. Both veterans hold no-movement clauses and seem intent on holding the organization to them.

The job security of Wilson and McLellan is bound to be in question and once you start making those changes a whole bunch of other possibilities come into play afterwards. When expectations aren’t met, especially over a long period of time, this is what happens.

“It’s been a letdown obviously this season to be where we are,” said Couture. “We still have a chance to fight back so that’s what we’re going to try and do.”

At a time when most have written them off, there isn’t much other choice. One of the endearing aspects about sports is the element of surprise — who among us thought Ottawa would make a playoff push with an unknown journeyman goaltender? — so the Sharks have to cling to some level of belief.

They flew out of Toronto with two points, but still had five more road games to play getting back on home ice. They probably have to sweep them, too.

“The chances of that happening are not in our favour,” said Vlasic. “Put in the effort every night and you might get a win every night.”

On now to Montreal and Ottawa and Detroit and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. On to an uncertain future where the only guarantee is that this organization won’t be what it once was.

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