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San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi wipes his eye during a break in play of the first period of Game 4 in their NHL Western Conference Final hockey playoff game against the Vancouver Canucks in San Jose, California, May 22, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Blake (Mike Blake/Reuters)
San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi wipes his eye during a break in play of the first period of Game 4 in their NHL Western Conference Final hockey playoff game against the Vancouver Canucks in San Jose, California, May 22, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Blake (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Gary Mason

No surprise to see Sharks on the skids Add to ...

Should the San Jose Sharks soon be dispatched from these 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs, hockey historians will search through the detritus of the Western Conference finals to determine how it occurred.

It won't be hard to find evidence.

The Sharks now find themselves down 3-1 against the Vancouver Canucks, the Presidents' Trophy winners who are suddenly looking every bit like the team that dominated the NHL regular season.

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The Sedins are putting on a nearly nightly magic show. The team's power play has become lethal. The penalty kill, after a course correction following Game 3, looks as efficient as ever. The team's third and fourth lines are always more asset than liability. The defence is looking after things at both ends of the ice. And Roberto Luongo is as good as he needs to be.

The Sharks, meantime, have been the first ones to admit they haven't shown up to play for most of this series. And given that this is the team's second straight conference final (after a succession of conference semi-final losses) it seems almost incomprehensible that that could be the case.

It is one of the NHL's oldest maxims that a Stanley Cup winner has to learn from previous playoff setbacks before it understands what it takes to go all the way. So you would have thought the Sharks, of all teams, had more than enough painful playoff memories to draw upon for inspiration heading into this year's playoffs.

And yet, for some reason, the Sharks have been the vastly inferior team. Just look back at what they have been saying about themselves in this series and it sums up rather adroitly how we got to the point we are today.

After Game 1: "We looked tired, we looked sluggish," coach Todd McLellan said. "We were like dogs chasing cars on the freeway."

After Game 2: "[Patrick Marleau]wants to win, he's a gamer," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. "It's too bad we didn't have a bunch of gamers tonight." McLellan would add that the team had several players who weren't pulling their weight, "and I'm not going to hide them any more."

After Game 4: "Disappointed, myself included, that we had too many passengers tonight," Torrey Mitchell said. "And that's not going to get it done against a team like this."

The third game was the only one in which the Sharks seemed to have any urgency, where they played with conviction and pressed the Canucks into making mistakes and taking penalties.

While it appears that this series will be written off as one that was won by special teams - and certainly, Vancouver's have been far better than San Jose's - the fact is the Canucks have been a cut above the Sharks five-on-five, too. That is often why a team takes penalties, when it is being dominated by another. It happens when you're chasing opposition players around and it happens because you're frustrated that you're chasing players around.

Vancouver players were saying all the right things after their win Sunday in San Jose. The Canucks have been up 3-1 in their previous two playoff rounds and lost the next game. It could happen again. So no, the series isn't over officially - somehow it just feels that way.

The San Jose defence appears overmatched. Goalie Antti Niemi looks mortal, even though you can't pin the losses on him. Outside of Thornton, Marleau and maybe Logan Couture, the Sharks have not received consistent efforts from their forwards.

Dany Heatley has been a complete no-show and suddenly seems too slow to keep up with the pace of playoff hockey. Players that gave San Jose so much in their dramatic series win over Detroit - guys like Ryan Clowe, Devin Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, Mitchell and Kyle Wellwood - have left little impression on this series except a negative one.

It was Wellwood who famously said earlier in the season that he didn't think this would be Vancouver's year to take a run at the Cup. He said he thought his former team still had some lessons to learn before it understood what it took to be a champion.

As it turns out, it looks like he was talking about his own team.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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