The Los Angeles Kings kicked off the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Pacific Division champions of the 2013-14 NHL season with a win Saturday, May 3. It should have been the San Jose Sharks taking the ice against the Anaheim Ducks.
Becoming just the fifth team in major American sports history to lose a series after having a 3-0 lead has earned this team the label of a playoff choker. Before that, San Jose was at worst an underachiever: 7-2 series record in the first round during Doug Wilson's tenure as general manager but 3-4 in the second round with a pathetic 3-12 record in Western Conference finals games kept them from even reaching the Stanley Cup finals.
Since Todd McLellan took over the Sharks, they have bowed out easily in every series they lost in except the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. They may have taken the Kings to seven games in the 2014 Pacific Division semifinals, but losing four straight is not putting up a fight. In 2012, they lost the last four after one double-overtime win. In 2011, they lost four of five in the Western Conference finals—one game better than they did there in 2010.
The 2009 President's Trophy team dropped the first two games at home and was knocked out by the Ducks in six first-round games—the biggest upset of the team under McLellan. Then again, much of this same core used to fall short for Ron Wilson: Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brad Stuart and Scott Hannan were all part of at least one playoff for each coach.
Marleau, Stuart and Hannan were even part of teams that went 18-24 under Darryl Sutter. His inability to get beyond the second round eventually got him fired when the team struggled early the next season, yet his resume has gotten fat with two teams since leaving San Jose.
Thus, it may seem like these players are the problem since they are the only constants on a team that underachieves when it matters most. Yet many of them have performed their roles well in many of the failed Stanley Cup runs.
What ails the Sharks is deeper than any obvious conclusion. That is one reason they are still routinely picked as contenders despite their previous failures. The 2013-14 NHL season proved they were good enough, but the playoffs proved there were still things missing from this team. Rather than the tongue-in-cheek list of 18 things Ray Ratto offered for CSN Bay Area Friday, Examiner.com has five very serious missing elements to obtaining that elusive Stanley Cup...
Winning a goalie duel
As many great goalies as the San Jose Sharks have had, they almost never win the goalie duel. As great as Evgeni Nabokov played in both the 2004 and 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs, he was bested by Miikka Kiprusoff in the Western Conference finals then by Chris Osgood in the semifinals, respectively.
Eventually, the Sharks let him go and grabbed Antti Niemi after he won the Stanley Cup following a four-game sweep in the Western Conference finals at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks. While his superior play over Nabokov was the single-biggest difference between the teams, the problems persisted with the new goalie.
Niemi was terrible in two of the first three rounds of his first Stanley Cup playoffs as a Shark. He was out-played by the combination of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot the next year despite playing relatively well. As well as he played in 2013, Jonathan Quick out-played him in the second round.
San Jose needs to win a goalie duel after the first round. Maybe Niemi can do that, maybe Alex Stalock can or maybe general manager Doug Wilson needs to go after someone who can.
The San Jose Sharks lose a lot of those goalie battles because they do not win the battle in front of them. The way to beat the best goalies is to screen them, deflect pucks and get to rebounds. That means the team with the edge wins the battle in front of each net.
As big as the Sharks are, they do not own this real estate on either end of the ice. The Anaheim Ducks beat the President's Trophy winners in the first round by winning this battle in 2009. Only the Detroit Red Wings lost that battle with the Sharks in 2010, and the Vancouver Canucks were the only one of seven opponents since then to lose the net-front battle.
Some of this may have to do with the lack of edge, but Detroit won these battles with less edge than San Jose has. Some of it might be fixable with new coaching tactics, but some of it just has to do with good habits.
The San Jose Sharks have been among the biggest teams in the NHL for years. Joe Thornton is one of the strongest players in the world, able to often control the puck behind the net while holding off two defenders.
The San Jose captain is also one of the most easy-going players on the team. Before him, the even more soft-spoken, emotionally reserved Patrick Marleau. This is not only the team's leadership but also its entire makeup.
The Sharks can hit. They can take hits. They have players that can fight. They just do not strike fear into their opponents.
Their Pacific Division semifinal series turned in a physical Game 4. Ultimately the Los Angeles Kings felt secure enough to have Jarret Stoll—a friend of one of the few Sharks that do have edge, Raffi Torres—throw a cheap-shot elbow to the back of the head of Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
Los Angeles was right. Even as it ripped four straight games away on the brink of elimination thanks in part to San Jose's best blue-line player's absence, there was no retaliation.
Someone on the team needs to hold Stoll accountable, making him target practice for every hit. Put Mike Brown out there when Stoll (or perhaps Drew Doughty—rather than punish the offender, how about an eye-for-an-eye punishment to the team by going after their top player?) is on the ice in one of those games that was over for half the third period and he does not have to worry about the instigator penalty.
The San Jose Sharks have no killer instinct. It turns out that which they seemed to acquire in the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs just spoke to how badly the Vancouver Canucks were falling.
The Sharks show that lack of killer instinct not just late in games but late in offensive rushes. They have too many players that want to set someone up than score the goal, and passes do not get through the modern defenses—they are beaten by firing and scrambling for the rebound.
How many times in the 2013-14 NHL season did this team get no shots on a rush because of one pass too many? That is why general manager Doug Wilson referred to them in March of 2013 as "a pass-first team in a shoot-first league."
San Jose must develop more killer instinct on scoring chances to win more close games. The ability to finish off more opponents instead of letting them back in the game or series should follow—habits are learned on the small things before paying dividends on the larger goals.
No shifts off
One of the reasons the San Jose Sharks do not finish off more opponents is they consistently takes shifts off. In the 2013-14 NHL season, they would often build an early lead and let teams back in late in the third period. Sometimes they would show up late and press like crazy in the third period, especially against some of the weaker teams, with one total point in seven games against three teams in the bottom quarter of the league.
Doug Wilson also referred to them as a "57-minute team" in March of 2013 presumably because he was finally sick of watching them let up. This also plays to killer instinct—the Sharks must learn to finish off teams early and keep the pedal to the floor until a game or series is over—but more to work ethic and overconfidence.
San Jose must respect its opponents even when leading by two or more goals or when they are among the worst in the NHL. This good habit is all the more important in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Sharks must also get better at working through the adversity of a goal, as an inordinate number of goals against came in bunches. In the Pacific Division semifinals, they allowed multiple goals in a row in all seven games—anywhere from two in a period of 6:01 to three in a period of 2:46 without even considering the two empty-net tallies.
When San Jose gets rid of players that take shifts and even weeks off and sets an expectation of full effort from every player on every shift during every game (and practice, for that matter), the Stanley Cup becomes a possibility. Until then, regular season success is the most that can be hoped for.