The thing about ghosts or demons is that they don’t actually have to exist; you only need to believe in them for them to terrify you.
Their stranglehold 3-0 lead is now a tentative advantage at best. Their confidence has to be shaken.
For some Sharks veterans, it may feel like history repeating itself. The curse continues, so to speak.
So good for so long in the regular season, the Sharks for the better part of a decade were the hockey-savvy pundits’ annual choice to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. That has led to years of disappointment, and many now look elsewhere for that prediction.
Those who jumped ship question the leadership of Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton—the mainstays of the Sharks over all these successful seasons—and wonder why management hasn’t moved on.
For three games in these 2014 NHL playoffs, those who this year foresaw a Cup final future for the Sharks were feeling pretty confident about the pick and the leadership group that remains.
Hey @RattoCSN I see the Sharks are showing off their tremendous ability at being closers gain. Nothing is easy.— Bruce Garrioch (@SunGarrioch) April 27, 2014
Sure, it’s just two losses, and the Sharks still have the advantage of having to win just one of the next two games to eliminate the Kings.
However, doubt is deadly, and the Kings have planted a seed of it with a pair of lopsided scores—outscoring the Sharks 9-3 over the past 120 minutes of action.
Goaltender Antti Niemi has been pulled in both games and may not even start Monday’s Game 6, according to NHL.com’s Eric Gilmore.
In addition to the goaltending controversy and sudden lack of finish, the Sharks lost their best defenseman when Marc-Edouard Vlasic took a forearm to the head from Jarret Stoll, putting his status for Monday in doubt, per NHL.com’s Corey Masisak.
The pressure may be taking its toll. Veteran Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle came a bit unraveled when asked about playing with three chances to eliminate the Kings, and using two mulligans.
"I can't believe you'd ask that question," Boyle said after the last loss, via Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News. "This is a series. That's why it's a best-of-seven. You can blame it on a lot of things. Winning teams have got to go on. ... We have to win a game. They're a really good hockey team."
Will the spring of 2014 end the way so many others have in the past for a Sharks team talented enough to go the distance but ultimately unable?
In 2004, the underdog Calgary Flames dumped them six games into the conference final after the Sharks won the Pacific Division and established themselves as the third-best team in the league that season.
In 2006, another unlikely Alberta team crushed their hopes when the Edmonton Oilers upset the Sharks in six games—after the Sharks staked themselves a 2-0 series lead.
A 2-1 series advantage against the Detroit Red Wings in 2007 turned into three straight wins by the Wings to oust the Sharks in the second round.
Big changes would come after 2008 witnessed another middle-of-the-pack playoff team eliminating the Sharks. This time it was the Dallas Stars who took them out in six games, leading to the dismissal of head coach Ron Wilson.
But newcomer Todd McLellan hasn’t had any more success. After the Sharks won the Presidents’ Trophy as the best regular-season NHL club in 2009, the Western Conference’s eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks dumped them in the first round.
A first-round exit at the hands of the St. Louis Blues was the result in 2012, and the Kings took them out in the second round a year ago—in seven games.
For the Kings to eliminate the Sharks again, it would take a seventh contest to decide it. The Sharks’ hot start ensured that.
And in hindsight, you could look at the Sharks’ troubled playoff past and, with a glass-half-full approach, point out that they lost out to the Western Conference champion in four of those nine seasons, with one of them ultimately winning the Stanley Cup.
If the Kings somehow manage to become the fourth NHL team to overcome a 3-0 series deficit and escape this first round, they could potentially get to the conference final or the Cup final themselves.
That doesn’t change the fact that the Sharks have essentially imploded over two contests—including their worst game of the series Saturday on home ice, no less.
Jonathan Quick, on the other hand, has turned his series around.
|Game 1||28||23||.821||L 6-3|
|Game 2||40||33||.825||L 7-2|
|Game 3||40||36||.900||L 4-3 (OT)|
|Game 4||39||36||.923||W 6-3|
|Game 5||30||30||1.000||W 3-0|
After looking rattled early and often through the first three contests, Quick has been more consistent, calm and confident in the last two.
Who will win the series?
The Kings have stolen the momentum in the series, and while one fast start by the Sharks could curtail it, the task is a tall one when you consider the Kings get the benefit of home ice Monday before having to head back to San Jose for Game 7, should it get that far.
One bad game from the Sharks could be chalked up to a desperate Kings team staving off elimination on home ice in Game 4.
The second, though, reeks of mental lapse.
And there’s nothing worse than being haunted by your own thoughts.
Steve Macfarlane has been covering the NHL for more than a decade, including seven seasons for the Calgary Sun. You can follow him on Twitter @MacfarlaneHKY.