SAN JOSE — For a franchise with a frustrating history of postseason flops, the latest collapse sent the San Jose Sharks to a new low.
The Sharks became the fourth team in NHL history to lose a best-of-seven series after winning the first three games, getting overwhelmed at home in a 5-1 loss in Game 7 on Wednesday night to start a pivotal offseason for a team looking to shed the label of playoff underachievers.
“We obviously don't want to hear that kind of stuff, but what are we going to say? We were on the wrong side of history tonight,” defenseman Brad Stuart said. “It's tough for us to argue with anything that's said. We let ourselves down, we let the fans down, we let everybody in our organization down. It's not a good feeling. There's not really much else you can say about it.”
San Jose has the second most regular-season wins in the NHL the past 10 seasons but has never made it past the conference finals. There was the first-round loss to Anaheim in 2009 after posting the best record in the league in the regular season, second-round losses to inferior teams like Edmonton in 2006 and Dallas two years later, and three defeats in the conference final when that elusive Stanley Cup seemed so close.
Yet this might have been the most bitter of all, considering it came against a fierce rival and after the Sharks looked so strong in taking a 3-0 series lead.
“Every year you lose is pretty low, but this one is a type of series that will rip your heart out,” forward Logan Couture said. “It hurts. It's going to be a long summer thinking about this one and what we let slip away.”
San Jose outscored the Kings 17-8 to win the first three games but was barely competitive in the final four contests. The Sharks were outscored 16-3 over the final 3½ games to join Detroit (1942), Pittsburgh (1975) and Boston (2010) as the only teams to blow a 3-0 series lead.
The only bright side might be that Detroit and Boston both won it all the year after their collapses.
“It's just so disappointing that we were able to go up 3-0 and not find a way to have that killer instinct, to find a way to scrape and claw and win games like they did,” Couture said. “It's tough saying it, but I think the better team won the series. They were better than us.”
The Sharks took the day off Thursday to regroup before going through the annual routine of exit meetings and cleanup on Friday where they will start looking for answers for why they fell short once again.
Defenseman Dan Boyle might leave as a free agent and forward Marty Havlat could have the final year of his contract bought out. But the biggest questions will be about the status of coach Todd McLellan and general manager Doug Wilson.
While the Sharks did a good job dealing with injuries to finish tied for the fourth-most points in the regular season, they couldn't get it done in the playoffs.
“I'm in charge, I'm responsible for the group that performs on the ice,” McLellan said. “I have to accept that responsibility. When we break down the series, I'm not going to throw any individuals or group of individuals under the bus, because we lost it collectively. But I'm responsible for that group.”
The biggest issue was the lack of production from the top players in the final four games. Captain Joe Thornton, linemate Brent Burns and Couture had no points in the final four games and Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski didn't have a goal or an assist in the last three.
The power-play went 0-for-15 in the final three games, including four blown chances in the second period of Game 7 when the Sharks were either ahead or tied.
It added up to a second straight Game 7 loss to the Kings.
“We were a lot closer last year than we were this year,” McLellan said. “We're kidding ourselves if we think we were closer this year, just because it went seven games. … It wasn't even close. We had a core group of individuals that didn't get on the score sheet. Last year was a lot closer than it was this year.”