It is difficult to justify calling the fourth game of a quarterfinal series the most important moment in the history of a franchise. Unless you're a Sharks fan.
When the Sharks take the ice in Calgary tonight, they won't just be playing to avoid trailing the Flames three games to one. They'll be looking to avoid their fourth straight playoff meltdown, and the drastic changes that will no doubt come as a result.
In 2004, against these same Calgary Flames, an upstart San Jose team surprised everyone by winning the Pacific Division before rolling over both St. Louis and the high-powered Colorado Avalanche to make their first appearance in the Western Conference Finals. As the second seed, San Jose was far and away the series favorite, just four wins away from a Stanley Cup Finals berth, but an uninspired showing at home sent the Sharks to the golf course in six games.
After the 2004-05 season was wiped out by work stoppage, the Sharks overcame a slow start to enter the post-season with sky-high confidence and a new weapon in Joe Thornton. In an improbable turn of events, the four top-seeded Western Conference teams fell to upset, giving the Sharks a favorable second round match-up against Edmonton, who only snuck in to the playoffs thanks to San Jose's two late-season victories against the Vancouver Canucks.
The Sharks jumped out to a 2-0 series lead with a pair of victories at home, but dropped game three, a multiple overtime decision in Edmonton. The Sharks rallied to take 2-0 and 3-1 leads in game four, appearing poised to take a commanding series lead back home for game five.
Then San Jose experienced the first of four heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, single-game meltdowns and never recovered. They lost the lead in game four, were awful at home in game five, and had no answer for Edmonton's raucous home crowd in game six, dropping the series four games to two once again.
In 2006-07, it seemed that San Jose's most painful lessons had been learned. They once again entered the playoffs as the fifth seed, knocking off Nashville for the second straight year before facing an injury depleted Detroit squad. The Sharks dominated game one in Detroit, and appeared poised to sweep on foreign ice with a 2-0 third-period lead in game two.
Then meltdown (part 2 of 4) occured: Three unanswered goals, including Detroit's go-ahead tally in the final minute, had the series deadlocked at one heading to San Jose, where the Sharks handily won game three. Though they were up 2-1 in the series, there was a general grumbling among fans and players alike that Team Teal had beaten themselves out of a 3-0 stranglehold in the series. Meltdown number three was on the horizon.
With a late one-goal lead in game four, on home ice, Patrick Marleau found himself on the wrong side of the puck during a neutral zone battle, allowing Robert Lang to break in two-on-one. He held, shot, and beat Nabokov to tie the game, another last-minute regulation goal that proved just too much for the Sharks to recover from. Detroit went on to win in overtime, and the following two games were no contest: Detroit took the series by the all-too-familiar 4-2 margin, and San Jose once again went home with unanswered questions, unfulfilled dreams and unsatisfied fans.
An tumultuous off-season for the usually calm Doug Wilson saw the Sharks general manager struggle with the urge to make big changes, including the search for a new coaching staff and the prospect of trading his captain. In the end, Wilson decided to make minimal changes, and give the team that he'd built so successfully one more chance to succeed.
Tonight begins the end of that chance.
If the Sharks fail to recover from the final installment of their traditional springtime meltdown (Sunday's 4-3 abomination in Calgary), it will likely cost at least one coach his job, while a few players may be forced to put their Bay Area homes on the real-estate market.
It will raise, once again, the ugly questions about Joe Thornton's ability to elevate his game come playoff time. It will raise questions, however unfair given his performance thus far, about Patrick Marleau's leadership abilities. It will raise questions about Jeremy Roenick, who, despite all he has done to bring this team together, has never been part of a Stanley Cup winner. Most importantly, it will likely end the 500-win coaching career of Ron Wilson, whose inability to win hockey's greatest prize has people wondering whether his ego allows for adjustment.
San Jose's season will not end tonight, nor will Calgary's. Nothing will be won, lost, or decided. Regardless of the outcome, the Sharks will wake up tomorrow morning and fly home to San Jose in time for a quick skate. They'll dress in the same room as they have all season long, next to the same group of players, listen to the same music and make the same jokes.
But the next five years will be drastically different in San Jose if they return home down two games rather than tied at two a piece. And rightfully so.
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