The San Jose Sharks were cruising through the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs. After convincing series victories against the Kings, Predators, and Blues, both Sharks fans and players were full of confidence and morale en route to their first ever Stanley Cup Final appearance. Then came the Penguins. After three dominating series from San Jose, I still don’t have the answer as to how the Penguins were so much better than the Sharks in this series. I attended the final game of the series, and while watching the Penguins and their fans celebrate was heartbreaking, it was never more clear after that game that the Sharks had simply ran out of gas, leaving them vulnerable to the deeper, faster, Penguins team.
Through the first three games of the series, the Sharks still seemed to have what it took to hang with the Penguins. Game one was quite even based off of dominance, but the Penguins barely edged the Sharks on the scoreboard with a late goal to put them up in the series. In a crazy game two, full of posts being hit left and right by both teams, including three from Sharks winger Tomas Hertl alone, the Penguins seemed to dominate. The Sharks kept it close enough to be in position to tie it late, but ultimately lost in overtime, putting them down 2-0. After losing two close and physically tolling games, morale among Sharks nation had been crushed, and the Sharks began to wear down. To make matters worse, the Sharks most productive skater through the first two games of the series, Tomas Hertl, went down with a mysterious lower body injury, which ultimately kept him out of the remainder of the series. Despite the loss of Hertl, the Sharks finally got one back on the Penguins in game three, with Joel Ward tying the game at 2 in the third, setting up a Joonas Donskoi overtime goal to set the series to 2-1. However, things only went downhill from there.
Following the game three victory, the Sharks were far outmatched and officially skating on E, as they hoped to simply steal games from the Penguins and find a way to win the series. In game four, once the Sharks went down their fans could tell the lead seemed insurmountable. The Penguins were flying to the puck, always one step ahead of the Sharks, and able to sniff out anything and everything that the Sharks were planning. By the end of the game, the Sharks were down 3-1 in the series, and the Sharks along with their fans could see where this series was heading. In game five the Sharks seemed to have shown life, scoring two goals early in the first, only to have the Penguins quickly answer back and tie it up. Later in the period the Sharks took the lead at 3-2 on a beautiful feed from Logan Couture to Melker Karlsson, but from there it was all Penguins. Again, the Penguins made it look easy, skating circles around the Sharks. Throughout the entirety of the second and third periods, the Penguins put a constant attack on the Sharks, and it seemed that the Sharks had no answer for it. Despite the barrage of opportunities for Pittsburg, the Sharks were able to steal the game on the back of goaltender Martin Jones, as he put together possibly the greatest goaltending performance I have ever seen to put the Sharks on a flight back to San Jose, with hopes of a comeback still in tact. However, game six was right around the corner, and the result wouldn’t be pretty for San Jose.
In game six, the Sharks played what I believe may have been one of the worst Stanley Cup performances in history. Before the game, “The Tank” was as loud as I had ever heard it, the stands filled with cheering fans, and the spirit at an all time high. However, the Sharks weren’t able to feed off of their fans spirits. The Sharks were consistently late to the puck, giving up avoidable turnovers, and losing solid opportunities because the puck was bouncing off of their sticks and out of reach. They simply seemed unfocused and out of energy. The Penguins were able to capitalize early, scoring a power play goal on a weak tripping call to Danius Zubrus, taking a lot of energy right out of the Sharks fans. The first period ended with the Sharks putting only four shots on goal. In the second, the Sharks finally showed some life. Goaltender Martin Jones was once again putting on a show, and they had about five minutes of complete dominance to start the second period, capped off by a goal from Logan Couture. With that, the Sharks had life, with the crowd pumped up it seemed the Sharks had all of the momentum, and were set to put up a battle for the rest of the game. However, all that ended just minutes later, as Kris Letang would put the Penguins back on top on a shot that I am still unsure how it found its way to the back of the net. The goal was set up by lazy skating from the Sharks, as they had multiple chances to clear the zone but couldn’t. Specifically, defenseman Roman Polak had a clear path to the puck and a few steps on the nearest Penguin, but skated at half speed, leading to a Penguin skating in and keeping the offensive push alive, which ultimately led to the series clinching goal. And although the Sharks had multiple great chances, including a shanked shot on a wide open net for Joe Pavelski, one of the leagues top goal scorers, the Sharks came up empty in the rest of the second period. The third period was another ugly one for the Sharks, as they only put two shots on goal, in a period where they were fighting for their season, and should have been putting everything they had into it. Even the crowd couldn’t shift momentum, as after a successful penalty kill and seven minutes left on the clock the crowd let out the loudest cheers they could muster, hoping to wake up the team and give them motivation to keep pushing towards the cup. In the end, the Penguins scored an empty netter with about one minute to go, sealing the game, and ending the Sharks first Stanley Cup appearance in a way that left their fans disappointed.
Ultimately, the Sharks just weren’t the same team that they had been through the first three rounds of the playoffs. Players such as Joe Pavelski, Joe Thortnon, and Brent Burns who were prominent in the Sharks Western Conference dominance, seemed to disappear, and important roll players such as Danius Zubrus, Brendan Dillon, and Roman Polak put on terrible performances. In the end, Martin Jones and Logan Couture were the only Sharks who seemed to hold up their high level of play from the first three rounds. Overall, the Penguins were the better team and deserved to win this series. They had their entire lineup giving their all throughout the whole series, with everybody holding up their end of the bargain. However, at the end of the day I feel there was no team, or fan base, that would have appreciated a Stanley Cup victory more than San Jose. After all the years of disappointment from high caliber Sharks playoff teams, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau would have finally gotten their long awaited and well deserved cup, the Sharks would have finally shed off their reputation as playoff chokers, and one of the best fan bases in sports would have been able to celebrate with their team. If their is a silver lining in all of this, however, the Sharks made it further than they have ever been, and players such as Martin Jones, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Brent Burns finally got the recognition they deserve as elite players in the NHL. The fan base is still ultimately proud of what their team was able to accomplish, as shown with the multiple rounds of “Lets go Sharks” chants let on from the still full crowd, as the Penguins were celebrating their Stanley Cup victory. While we may have come up short, and have a very uncertain path back to the cup with an aging roster, there has never been a better time to be a Sharks fan.