SAN JOSE — After celebrating the success of hockey in Northern California with an outdoor party that included more than 70,000 fans, the San Jose Sharks now must deal with the fact that the franchise is in danger of hitting its lowest point in more than a decade.
When the Sharks return to the ice following their outdoor loss against Los Angeles, they will be stuck in 10th place in the Western Conference with plenty of work to do over the final 21 games to extend their playoff streak.
San Jose has qualified for the past 10 postseasons, a streak surpassed only by the Detroit Red Wings and the NBA's San Antonio Spurs in North America's four major sports.
“You want to push toward that second season, and right now we're not there,” forward Joe Pavelski said. “So there's nothing given to us and we got to go earn it.”
The push for a playoff spot over the final 21 games begins Thursday night against the Red Wings. The Sharks have lost eight of their last 11 games, including a 2-1 defeat on Saturday night to the Los Angeles Kings in front of 70,205 fans at Levi's Stadium — the third-largest crowd in NHL history.
With seven of the next eight games at home, San Jose needs to make a move now.
“They're smart guys, and they have 42 (points) left on the table,” coach Todd McLellan said. “We'll have to go out and earn more than we lose, if we do that, we'll take care of ourselves.”
The outdoor loss to the Kings was just the latest disappointment delivered to the Sharks by their Southern California rivals, who have knocked San Jose out of the playoffs the past two seasons.
Last year's defeat was especially painful and still lingers with the team 10 months later. San Jose became the fourth NHL team to lose a best-of-seven playoff series after winning the first three games.
That was perhaps the most crushing moment in a decade of postseason disappointment. While San Jose has been one of the league's most consistent teams since the start of the 2003-04 season, the Sharks have failed to make it past the conference finals while the California rival Kings and Anaheim Ducks have won three of the past eight titles.
Last year's playoff collapse led to Joe Thornton being stripped of his captaincy and general manager Doug Wilson talking about the need to take one step backward before taking two steps forward.
“Right now I think we're trying to define, and I've said this a number of times over the last week, we're trying to define and clarify expectations,” McLellan said. “We can't give ourselves permission to be average. We're better than average and we have to play that way.”
They sure haven't during this latest funk. The Sharks showed signs of progress by beating Los Angeles, Anaheim and Chicago in successive games surrounding the All-Star break.
But a home loss to last-place Edmonton started this latest slump as San Jose has allowed 38 goals in the past 11 games. Poor defensive play has been a constant for most of the season as the Sharks are allowing their most goals per game since 2005-06 — when offensive numbers spiked in the first year following the lockout.
There have been other problems as well, including inconsistent goaltending from Antti Niemi and a lack of depth scoring. Patrick Marleau is on pace for his fewest goals since his rookie year in 1997-98, second-year player Tomas Hertl has been in a season-long scoring slump and the Sharks have been unable to generate any consistent scoring from their bottom two lines.
That will need to change over these next seven weeks if the Sharks are to have a chance to make the playoffs.
“We'll fight until the end of the season,” forward Logan Couture said. “We'll push as hard as we can to make the playoffs. If we don't make it, shame on us.”