(This story was originally published on June 12, 2016)
SAN JOSE — One day, maybe it will be the Sharks carrying the Stanley Cup across the ice and kissing it the way that a lost lover kisses a lost love.
Sunday, that team was the Pittsburgh Penguins.
One day, maybe the Sharks will have their greatest season ever the way they did this season, but have a happy ending.
Sunday, the ending meant a losing handshake line after a 3-1 defeat in Game 6, then gliding to the exit tunnel hearing loud cheers from the SAP Center crowd who saluted the players for going farther than anyone had a right to expect.
One day, maybe Sharks captain Joe Pavelski will score the winning goal in a Cup clinching game.
Sunday, he did not have a shot on net.
“At the end of the day, we wanted to give them more,” Pavelski said in the quiet Sharks dressing room, talking about the fan reaction even in defeat.
The Sharks gave their followers plenty of brilliant moments over the past two months. But the last two weeks, those brilliant moments were too far apart and too few, thanks to the Penguins.
And in case you are wondering how it feels to see hockey’s largest and shiniest trophy presented to the opposing team on your home rink, to see those opponents toss their sticks and helmets in the air and celebrate . . . well, it feels exactly the way you’d think it would feel.
“When you think of getting to this opportunity when you’re a kid, you never plan on losing when you get here,” said Sharks alternate captain Logan Couture. “You dream of winning. It definitely hurts. It’s not fun.”
“To be right there and be that close . . .,” Pavelski said, letting the sentence dangle. “At the end of the day, it’s tough. It just ends. We’ve been playing and traveling and playing every other day for a long time. It seems like you should keep playing.”
For a little while Sunday night, it appeared the beloved Los Tiburones might indeed send the series back to Pittsburgh for a Game 7 on Wednesday. Although the Penguins took an early 1-0 lead, the Sharks came out in the second period and played as good a 20 minutes as they had all series. They finally got some extended time in their offensive zone and fired 13 shots at Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray.
So when Couture slipped a puck past Murray to tie the score at 1-1 with 13:33 left in the period, bringing the noise level inside the Tank to maximum volume, it seemed to be the start of something excellent.
Instead, just 79 seconds later, Pittsburgh scored again. Sidney Crosby skated behind the net and fed teammate Kris Letang to put the Penguins back ahead, 2-1. And although the Sharks kept getting chances, they could not convert. Then, in the third period, Pittsburgh swallowed up the Sharks offense entirely, allowing only two shots–by Couture and Joonas Donskoi.
“I don’t know if we generated enough offensively,” Couture said. “We didn’t shoot the puck enough. It felt like they were quicker than us. We looked tired. We looked slower. But, that might be their speed. They’re a good team . . . I mean end of hockey seasons are never fun. It ends, it’s like you hit a brick wall.”
In the next few days, there will be time to put perspective on this best Sharks playoff run ever. But on Sunday night, there was too much of that brick wall to contemplate.
Anyone who watched all six games of the series could see why it turned out the way it did. The hard and heavy game that the Sharks played to win the Western Conference against similar hard and heavy teams did not translate well when faced against the jitterbug fast skaters of the Penguins.
The Sharks outhit Pittsburgh, 46-26, in Sunday’s game. So what? The Penguins got to the puck quicker, played with it longer, threw the Sharks off their game of forechecking and cycling and grinding to wear down teams and create space. The Penguins kept up the pressure in all zones that way.
“It’s not just their speed,” said Sharks coach Pete DeBoer. “They have good sticks, too. They force you into quicker decisions. They really challenge your execution. We hadn’t seen pressure and sticks like that through the first three rounds. I think our execution was an issue because of that.”
Could the Sharks have figured out a way to counteract that execution? They did, in short spurts. But as happened throughout the six games, they could not bury their rare Grade A chances on Sunday. Matt Nieto had a breakaway and didn’t score. Brett Burns had a straight-up look at Murray and shot it wide. Joel Ward had his own breakaway and had the puck stripped from behind.
You never know if you’ll get this kind of playoff run again, with a goalie playing as lights-out as Martin Jones did, so every one of those missed opportunities will linger. For example, Pavelski was also thinking about a third period sequence where he wound up with the puck right on the goal doorstep with his back to the net–but instead of shooting, pivoted and tossed the puck toward Joe Thornton on the opposite side of the crease.
When that happened, the crowd audibly gasped because almost always, it’s the reverse–Thornton will pass up a shot to pass to Pavelski. This was such crazy and awful irony.
Pavelski explained that as he turned, he saw a Pittsburgh player move out and create an open lane directly to Thornton. But as happened so often through the series, a Penguins stick got in the way of Thornton
“It’s funny how sometimes you just can’t realize what you see,” said Pavelski. “I haven’t looked at it yet on the video.”
The Sharks were also hurt by the way penalties were called–or not called–during the Final. Officials let a lot of stuff go that was called during the regular season, on both sides. But with the Sharks holding the better power play statistically, their lack of extra-man opportunities was more damaging. And the Penguins’ penalty kill was very good.
Still, the Pittsburgh side was respectful in victory.
“The San Jose Sharks are a great team,” said Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan. “We have so much respect for how good they are. It’s hard to win this.”
Just ask the players in the home dressing room how hard.
There were so many highlight plays over the past two months and so many unprecedented Shark moments to celebrate. So do the players remember those or only the way that the party ended?
“You remember a little bit of both,” Pavelski said. “But the missed chances stick out when you don’t get the results you want.”
“I tried as hard as I could,” Couture said. “I want to win. Unless you win, you can’t sit back and say it’s been a great season. People are going to doubt you until you win it all. That’s the way that this business with professional sports works, unfortunately. Twenty nine teams lose every year, only one wins. Until you win there’s always going to be people that doubt. That’s the way the world works.”
Then he paused.
“Summer starts tomorrow, right?” Couture said.
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Author: Mark Purdy