When the San Jose Sharks skated off the ice on Wednesday and raised their sticks to salute the crowd like they had done so many times over the last decade, the fans who remained tried their best to return the love.
It was a lot harder this time around, as their team had accomplished what has only been done four times in human history—blowing a 3-0 lead in a seven-game series—and galvanizing their reputation as the biggest chokers in the game.
Until that point, the Sharks did not deserve to be a punchline for the sports section of every newspaper publication across America and a laughingstock on Twitter.
Because for all of their postseason failures—losing to an eighth-seeded team after winning the Presidents' Trophy, dropping every home game in the 2004 Western Conference Final, getting swept out of the playoffs by the eventual world champion Chicago Blackhawks—the Sharks never had that one defining moment in sports lore comparable to the likes of Bill Buckner's error, Donnie Moore's blown save, Earnest Byner's fumble and Gary Anderson's miss.
This team wasn't the Boston Red Sox losing four World Series Game 7s. It wasn't the Chicago Cubs and their 106-year World Series drought. It wasn't the Pittsburgh Pirates putting up 20 consecutive losing seasons. This was just a team that seemed to shrivel up and crawl into a fetal position every time the playoffs rolled around. The losses, while frustrating, were never quite rage-inducing.
The worst part about the Sharks' searing collapse isn't that it came against their hated division rivals, but the way it happened after they humiliated the Kings in the first two games of the series. San Jose outscored L.A., 13-5. How bad was it? Even Hollywood "superstar" Wil Wheaton was throwing his team under the bus after Game 3.
No one expected the Sharks to win in a sweep; that wasn't them. But failing to score on their last 15 power plays? Getting two shots off on a minute-and-a-half, five-on-three advantage? Scoring two goals in the last three games of the series? That was Shark. That was sooo Shark.
Now they join the '42 Detroit Red Wings, the '75 Pittsburgh Penguins, the 2004 New York Yankees and the 2010 Boston Bruins on the profane walls of bathroom stalls in each of their respected stadiums. The only difference? Those franchises all won championships.
There is one minor consolation for Bay Area hockey fans. This kind of epic fail was incontrovertible proof that this team had to be gutted. Enough is enough. After getting the same results year after year with the same core group of players, something has to be done. Think of the 10th plague that led to the Exodus. After thirst, famine, locusts and fire, it took a tragedy like blowing a three-games-to-none lead to finally signal a change.
Well, maybe not. As terrible as the Sharks played in their final four games of the season, there was still an excuse or two to be made for why these guys couldn't get it done. The bad bounces in front of Antti Niemi in Game 5. The refs being duped into a pair of horrendous roughing penalties. Al Stalock being hacked with sticks for 30 seconds until the puck he was sitting on crossed the net (dagnabbit, where was that "intent to blow whistle" rule that cost the Sharks a game earlier this season?). Marc-Edouard Vlasic getting elbowed in the head by Jarret Stoll, who managed to escape punishment for a much more flagrant hit than the one delivered by Raffi Torres a year ago.
But in the end, the Sharks didn't make the plays they needed to. That doesn't just come from a lack of talent (we'll get to that in a minute), but also from a lack of focus, leadership and resilience.
San Jose's power play was often painful to watch, almost like a Michael Bay movie. Players looked afraid to take a shot, and the frantic pace that the Kings couldn't keep up with in the first three games was replaced with an air of panic and desperation.
It was even worse whenever the Sharks fell behind. Their penalties increased. They stopped playing defense. They were a deer in the headlights.
Players were looking around at each other for someone to make something happen. All they got was the same fearful glance in return. That's when a lot of Sharks fans finally realized something: their team wasn't a very good one in the playoffs, and more importantly, they wasn't a franchise player on the ice.
Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski are all good at playing hockey. But they're not great. All will be north of 30 years old next season and won't get any better moving forward. Logan Couture has been a "rising star" for six years now, and a breakout season is looking less and less likely. Tomas Hertl is the best bet going forward, but he played just the way Sharks players are expected to in the playoffs.
Amazingly, there are a lot of people out there who believe the Sharks can still win a Stanley Cup with the the team they have now. That things could get a lot worse if Todd McLellan is fired. To that I say, what's worse than choking away a 3-0 lead in the playoffs? Honestly, are they expected to do what everyone does and look at the Coyotes to make themselves feel better?
McLellan's got to go. Doug Wilson has to fire him, and then he should fire himself for extra measure. He's been around long enough to know that Marleau and Thornton are perennial playoff underachievers, but that didn't stop him from giving them each three-year extensions with complete non-movement protection earlier this season.
With Pavelski, Couture and Vlasic already locked up to long-term deals, this same team which has consistently failed to get over the hump will be at it again next season and several more after that.
But it'll be somebody new screwing up at the controls. While McLellan is correctly getting heat for leading his team to eternal condemnation, he's being criticized for all the wrong reasons. His mistake wasn't benching Niemi in Game 6, but naming him the starting goalie at the start of the playoffs.
With Stalock performing at an elite level all year and Niemi putting up career lows in save percentage and GAA, the logical move was to start Stalock and have a veteran Stanley Cup winner waiting in relief.
As a rookie, Stalock also needed time to get adjusted to the NHL's brutal postseason atmosphere. It's been 10 years and Thornton and Marleau still aren't used to it. Instead, Stalock got a trial-by-fire start in Game 6, and he experienced firsthand what it's like to be a goalie playing behind the Sharks defense in the playoffs.
While the Kings recognized the problems they were having early in the series and made the necessary adjustments, the Sharks continued giving up odd-man rushes and flailing on the power play. Their lackluster play on the ice never got the jolt it needed from McLellan or any of their standout veterans.
Darryl Sutter has now beaten his old team in the playoffs three times and, after winning a Stanley Cup two years ago, barely has any interest in rubbing it in. He'll leave that to the horde at the Staples Center.
Wilson wants McLellan to stay, and the players want him to stay. It's a symbiotic relationship, a circle of futility and hopelessness that won't stop feeding off each other.
In a perfect world, Thornton, Marleau, Boyle and Niemi will be playing hockey on another team next season, and McLellan will have a sandwich named after him somewhere in Vancouver. Or better yet, Florida.
Perhaps then, Sharks fans can start being more optimistic.
Maybe Stalock will become the goalie that they've been dreaming about, and maybe Hertl will become the Patrick Kane, Claude Giroux-esque player that the team has lacked throughout its existence. Maybe the next Star Wars movie will even be a good one.
Until that time comes, the Sharks no longer share the distinction of being the greatest chokers in sports.
They earned that title on Wednesday.
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