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Sharks undone by demands of the playoff chase

Rich Lam/2011 Getty Images

Afterward, Vancouver Canucks' coach Alain Vigneault pleaded with the press for a day off to celebrate the victory over the San Jose Sharks before he turned his attention to the Stanley Cup final - and who could blame him? As the legendary coach Bob Johnson used to say, the NHL playoffs are a marathon, and any time you can catch your breath along the way, it is an opportunity you need to grab.

In many ways, the Sharks were the poster boys for a team that was ultimately undone by the demands of the NHL playoff chase. The Sharks ran out of gas - not so much in Tuesday's thrilling 3-2 double overtime loss, but earlier, when they couldn't polish off the Detroit Red Wings in five games and thus were stretched to the limit in the second round. Against Vancouver, San Jose lost once because of fatigue, once because of lost composure, once because of a trio of 5-on-3 power plays and once because of the worst possible luck that a team can endure in the deciding game.

It wasn't just the circumstances of Kevin Bieksa's winning goal either - a shot by Alex Edler that ricocheted off the stanchion in the Sharks' zone and bounced right onto Bieksa's stick. Bieksa, the only player on the ice who knew where the puck was, dribbled it to the net and it found a spot between Antti Niemi's left pad and the goal post.

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Earlier, San Jose had some equally tough luck. With the Sharks nursing a one-goal lead in the final minute and Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo on the bench for a sixth attacker, a San Jose clearing attempt glanced off Daniel Sedin's shoulder on the way down the ice. The linesman missed the contact; icing was called; and Ryan Kesler's tying goal was scored off the subsequent faceoff. If the proper call is made, and icing is waved off, San Jose wins and both teams are in the Silicon Valley tonight, talking about Game 6.

Presumably, Sharks' captain Joe Thornton would also then have continued to insist that he was 100 per cent healthy. That was Thornton's message on the morning of Game 5. When it was over, he acknowledged what everyone either knew or suspected - that he separated his shoulder on the hit from Raffi Torres in the Sunday afternoon game and was playing only because it was an elimination game; and because that's what you do when you're down to your last playoff life. Coach Todd McLellan also revealed that winger Ryane Clowe had been playing with a bad shoulder ever since the opening round; missed only one game; but will "need to be repaired" in the off-season.

All in all, the Sharks acquitted themselves well against the Canucks; after a fun and enthralling seven-game series against the Detroit Red Wings that - barring an exceptional Stanley Cup final - will stand out as the best of the 2011 playoffs.

McLellan was pure class after the discouraging loss. Intelligent and thoughtful, it is easy to see how much his input and light touch help the Sharks contend every year.

On the blown icing call, McLellan was ready to cut the linesman a break: "It happens real fast. May be hard to catch with the naked eye. Obviously an error. But there's nothing we're doing about it now."

And if the league had introduced coaches challenges, the way the NFL does? McLellan says he would have thrown the red flag "pretty far if we could.

But he also acknowledged that there is a human element in officiating the same way there is in playing and if you're a big boy, you learn early on to live with good calls and bad calls as just another factor in the game.

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Some would characterize the San Jose season as another failure because once again, they failed to advance to the Stanley Cup final. This ignores two factors: One, the Canucks are an exceptional team in their own right; and two, the Sharks are not that far behind. Those aching for a major makeover in San Jose will be disappointed again.

Altogether, the Sharks have now played 16 playoff series since 2004, second most in the NHL behind the Red Wings at 18. They had nine home playoff dates, they were the 27th team eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs and they have their core players under contracts for next year and beyond. So don't expect to see wholesale changes, except on the periphery, the way most teams tweak the bottom ends of their rosters.

Thornton's play, in the playoffs and in the regular season, in his first year as the team's captain, was probably the most significant development - and sets this defeat apart from some of the others that the Sharks have absorbed along the way. The leadership group is growing, the way it does in all organizations that ultimately need to learn the lessons of winning.

"Obviously, that's a very courageous game for (Thornton) to play," said McLellan. "He did separate his shoulder last game, and it was very painful. Our training staff and doctors did a tremendous job in preparing him to play. I think it's a tremendous step for him as an individual and for us as an organization - to have your captain show up and play that way."

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