The San Jose Sharks’ season began with soaring expectations. Perennial contenders, they had added the star defenseman Erik Karlsson in the off-season and boasted as much talent, versatility, balance and depth as they ever had in their 27 N.H.L. seasons.
Yet as the postseason neared, San Jose went through a stretch of nine losses in 10 games, falling six times to non-playoff teams. It cost the Sharks first place in the Pacific Division and set up a first-round matchup with the defending Western Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights, against whom San Jose has struggled in both the regular season and playoffs.
Entering Thursday’s Game 5, the Sharks trail the series by three games to one.
Even so, an equilibrium of professionalism and levity has steadied the Sharks in their quest for their first Stanley Cup. That has also allowed them to tune out the pressure of being all in this season as they head toward an off-season with 10 pending free agents, including Karlsson, Timo Meier, Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton. The Sharks have eschewed any notions of their championship window closing.
“I’ve been in the league a long time and I’ve had a sniff once,” defenseman Brent Burns said. “You can’t waste years because you don’t think you have a talented team. It’s not really about that, it’s about coming together and creating something special.”
Coach Pete DeBoer said that when he took the Sharks’ job before the 2015-16 campaign, “everyone was predicting the demise of the San Jose Sharks.” That season, they won the Western Conference, then lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in Cup finals. San Jose qualified for the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, winning one series, and have integrated prominent new faces into the lineup.
“There’s been some good guys, and then all of a sudden there’s good guys behind them and then there’s good guys behind them,” said Thornton, the team’s former captain who will turn 40 a day after free agency opens this summer. “It just kind of keeps feeding.”
In the off-season, the Sharks traded for Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, to bolster a defense corps that already included Burns, another Norris winner, and four formidable shutdown defensemen. Burns and Karlsson rank first and second in the league for scoring among defensemen since the 2006-7 season.
Karlsson often showed the form that has made him one of the top defensemen in the world, but he missed 29 games with two groin injuries, returning from the second one with just one game left in the regular season.
“He automatically is on the ice 25 to 30 minutes,” DeBoer said. “That changes everybody’s role on the back end, and it really changes big pieces of our game up front, our transition game and our offensive zone game at the blue line.”
The Sharks also lost defenseman Radim Simek, Burns’s partner, for the season to a knee injury just as their late-season slump began. Karlsson leads the team with five points in four playoff games, but Vegas’s line of Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny and Mark Stone has run roughshod over the Sharks, accumulating 28 points in four games.
Up front, Pavelski, 34, had been on pace to set a career-high in goals before he missed seven games with a lower-body injury. Pavelski, who returned for the Sharks’ final three games, had missed only one game, for rest, in his previous seven seasons.
In Game 1 against Vegas, he scored a goal that ricocheted off his face and knocked out multiple teeth. He missed no action and led San Jose forwards in ice time in Game 2, but Pavelski has not scored a point since Game 1.
His production along with the emergence of forwards Meier and Tomas Hertl had helped the Sharks set a franchise record for goals in a season. They finished in a tie with Calgary for the second-most goals in the league this season, and they have shown quick-strike ability in the playoffs.
“We scored more goals than we’ve ever scored before while knowing that we are truly a blue-collar hockey team,” General Manager Doug Wilson said.
But being an offensive juggernaut didn’t help the league’s highest scoring team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were swept out of the playoffs in the first round. The picture has not been flattering for Sharks goalie Martin Jones and his backup Aaron Dell. San Jose was last in the league in overall and even-strength save percentage, and the problems have persisted in the playoffs.
Jones was pulled in Game 2, sparking a rally from three goals down that drew the Sharks even before Dell was saddled with a 5-3 loss. In Game 3, Jones allowed six goals, including a hat trick by Stone, and was beaten high to the glove side on each of Vegas’s first three goals. Jones allowed two goals on seven shots in the first period of Game 4 and was pulled again. San Jose lost, 5-0, despite outshooting Vegas 18-7 in the first period and 26-14 through two periods.
But the resilient Sharks have been introspective in the face of obstacles, Wilson said. They have also approached this season with the usual mix of steadfast dedication and locker-room antics that have been its trademark since Thornton’s arrival in 2005.
“Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, that’s how they live their life; that’s real,” DeBoer said. “What you see in the personality of this team is how those guys are if you showed up at their house in the middle of July. They prepare as hard as anybody, but they enjoy the process, and that’s contagious.”
Thornton and Pavelski, the current captain, also exemplify another common thread among their teammates: neither has won the Stanley Cup.
In his pursuit of the franchise’s elusive first title, Wilson, a former Norris Trophy winner who did not win a championship as a player either, has not placed an emphasis on Cup-winning experience. As was the case in 2016, Jones is the only Sharks player this season to have hoisted the Cup, albeit in a limited role as a backup for the Los Angeles Kings.
Wilson, who has been the team’s general manager since 2003, has once again wagered that hungry sharks swim faster.
“These guys have won Olympic golds, world juniors, world championships; they’ve won all over the place,” he said. “When we went to the Cup finals, a lot of those guys are still here and they still draw upon it today. They all get it. There’s certainly hunger there.”
Published at Wed, 17 Apr 2019 21:56:56 +0000