Sharks face possible end of an era with potential elimination looming

San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer reacts behind the bench during the first period in Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Western Conference finals against the St. Louis Blues in San Jose, Calif., on Sunday, May 19, 2019. (Josie Lepe/AP)

ST. LOUIS – When he was asked last week about being one of the most prolific playoff goal-scorers of his generation, just behind Alex Ovechkin and ahead of Sidney Crosby over the last 10 years, Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks had an immediate and simple answer.

“Those guys have won and I haven’t,” Couture, 30, said. “Those numbers don’t mean anything unless we win the Stanley Cup.”

In this respect, the Sharks have a lot of numbers that mean almost nothing, and certainly less to them than the zero Stanley Cups the franchise has won while winning more games than any NHL team over the last 15 seasons.

In that span, the Sharks have made the playoffs 14 times, and in 10 of these seasons advanced past the first round and into the NHL’s final eight. And yet, they’ve played in only one Stanley Cup Final and lost that one in 2016 to Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins.

San Jose is 1-3 in Western Conference finals, and the betting favourite is now 1-4 after the Sharks were hammered 5-0 Sunday on home ice by the St. Louis Blues, who took a 3-2 lead in this year’s West final.

When the Sharks play Game 6 Tuesday in Missouri, they will surpass the Penguins for the most playoff games since 2004. But Pittsburgh has three Stanley Cups in that time.

Doug Wilson became San Jose’s general manager in 2003 and has never had a down cycle, never needed nor wanted to rebuild, never finished with fewer than 89 points in a full season. By almost any measure, this is an incredible, almost unfathomable, run of prolonged success.

But even with a .629 winning percentage the last 15 seasons, the Sharks are known as much for their failure in springtime as their success during winter.

Their players wear that crown of thorns. Many teams start a season with the singular goal of winning the Stanley Cup, but most will be satisfied with something less. Not the Sharks.

When Couture says his 48 playoff goals since 2009 mean nothing unless the Sharks win a Cup, he means it.

“I’ve been here for five years and from training camp on, the goal has never been: ‘Let’s try and have a good season,’” San Jose defenceman Brendan Dillon explained before Sunday’s discouraging loss. “The expectation is to be the best team in the league.

“Doug sets the table for us and that feeling just kind of filters down. It makes you want to be a better player and prideful for the organization. Every year, San Jose is in the mix. Every day, guys practise hard. Whether you’re Joe Thornton or a first-year guy, guys put the time in to work. When guys like Jumbo (Thornton) or Pavs (Joe Pavelski) are going out to take an optional skate, it’s hard for someone like Timo Meier or Kevin Labanc to say ‘maybe I’ll take the day to myself.’ It’s all about being the best.”

Defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who has spent his 13-year career in San Jose, said: “Doug wants a competitive team every year. He doesn’t want to sit with a young team and build up to a good team. He wants to be in the playoffs every year with a chance to win, and I appreciate that. That’s why I’m here. We’ve always had a team good enough to win, and this year, I believe, even more so than years past.”

But here the Sharks are, one game away from elimination. Short of the Stanley Cup Final. Again.

Defenceman Erik Karlsson, the Sharks’ marquee acquisition this season, is clearly playing hurt and didn’t make it out of the dressing room for the third period on Sunday. Winger Evander Kane, Wilson’s blockbuster acquisition a year ago, had 12 hits on Sunday but is stuck on one assist for the series.

Iconic San Jose leader Joe Thornton has looked at times like a 39-year-old unable to make the impact he once did in his Hall-of-Fame career. And 35-year-old Pavelski, tied with Vlasic in seniority behind only Thornton, left Sunday’s game after a high, hard hit by Blues’ captain Alex Pietrangelo. Pavelski has lacked his customary flair this series after missing most of the last one with a concussion.

Key centre Tomas Hertl’s status for Game 6 is also unknown after he left Sunday’s game a couple of periods after getting hit in the head away from the puck by the Blues’ Ivan Barbashev, who was not penalized but could yet face supplemental discipline.

Karlsson, Thornton and Pavelski are all unrestricted free agents after this season, as is deadline pickup Gustav Nyquist.

The Sharks are facing not only the end of their season on Tuesday but, possibly, the end of an era, too.

“When you get to this point, you can see the finish line,” goalie Martin Jones said. “It’s the Stanley Cup. We all want to win it. I think the deeper you go, the more real it gets. But when you can see the end, it definitely puts more urgency in your game.”

“For sure, it’s frustrating,” Vlasic said of the failure so far to win a Cup. “It’s what we’re searching for. We’ve had some really good runs, but just haven’t got it done. When Doug made the moves to bring Erik in and Evander last year, it was: ‘We’ve got to win a Stanley Cup with this team.’ We’re good enough to. We believe we can with this group. It’s just up to us players to go do it.”

With all that experience and winning DNA, the Sharks are 4-0 in elimination games this spring. But they’ll need to be 6-0 to play for the Stanley Cup, and they’ve never been perfect before.

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