The scene was all too familiar for the San Jose Sharks: a postgame handshake line on their home ice with the other team celebrating a series win while the Sharks wonder what might have been.
A team that seemed to have the ingredients necessary for a long playoff run went out instead in the second round with a 3-0 loss on Sunday in Game 6 against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
“For periods of this series, I thought we were a better team, I thought we played the game that we know we’re capable of, we showed we could beat them,” forward Logan Couture said. “We just didn’t do it long enough.”
That’s what perhaps makes this the most bitter playoff loss in coach Peter DeBoer’s three seasons in San Jose, all of which ended with home playoff losses.
In 2016, the Sharks got over a major hump and made it to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history before losing in six games to a more talented Pittsburgh team.
Last year, San Jose sputtered toward the finish of the season and lost in six games to Edmonton in the first round in large part because of injuries that hampered star centres Couture and Joe Thornton.
But the Sharks were healthier this year, despite Thornton’s absence because of a knee injury. Midseason acquisitions Evander Kane and Eric Fehr had San Jose surging following a first-round sweep against Anaheim.
They came out flat in the opener against Vegas and lost 7-0 and then dropped a key overtime contest at home in Game 3, playing much of the series from behind. The biggest difference was the performance of the top lines with Vegas’s trio of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith combining for eight goals and 17 assists, while Kane, Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi had just three goals and two assists for the Sharks.
“We definitely would’ve liked to have been a little bit more productive,” Pavelski said. “It’s hard to say. We’ll have to take a look at it, figure it out. We had some looks, we had some chances, we didn’t capitalize when we did. I wish I had an answer. We sure should’ve been a little better.”
Here are some other takeaways from the season and things to watch this summer:
Thornton injured his right knee on Jan. 23 and never was able to make it back into the lineup. He practiced all postseason and even took part in all the pregame skates, but never felt quite healthy enough to get back into the lineup. The 38-year-old Thornton is now eligible to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, leaving his future in San Jose in doubt. He can still be productive, as evidenced by his 13 goals and 23 assists in 47 games. But after significant knee injuries the past two seasons, there are questions about whether he will be able to keep up in the faster-paced game.
The move to acquire Kane from Buffalo at the trade deadline provided a major spark. He had nine goals and five assists in 17 games, providing needed speed and physicality on San Jose’s top line. That carried over to the first round, when he had three goals and an assists in a sweep against Anaheim, but Kane wasn’t nearly as effective against Vegas as he played through injuries. Now the Sharks have a decision to make whether to keep Kane or let him leave as a free agent. If he signs, they owe Buffalo a first-round pick in 2019. If he leaves, that pick becomes a second-rounder.
“Obviously I enjoy winning and coming here was a great opportunity for me to do that,” Kane said. “I really, really, really enjoyed my time with this group of guys, and loved going to battle with these guys.”
The best development for the Sharks this season was the evolution of some younger players. Tomas Hertl looks like he could be a dominant power forward, Chris Tierney and Kevin Labanc are able playmakers, Timo Meier scored 21 goals at the age of 21, and Joakim Ryan is an ideal defensive partner for Brent Burns. Those players will be counted on to do even more in the future as the Sharks transition from players such as Thornton, Pavelski and the departed Patrick Marleau to a new generation.
The Sharks head into the off-season with projected salary-cap room of more than US$15-million. While some of that could be used up by keeping Thornton or Kane, general manager Doug Wilson also could use that money to target a top free agent such as John Tavares of the New York Islanders. Wilson has been planning for that flexibility for years and now the question becomes how he will use it.
The Associated Press