Sharks choke in Kings’ sized comeback

Antti Niemi, Sharks choke against Kings.

Antti Niemi, San Jose Sharks. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The San Jose Sharks have completed a monumental choke job in the first-round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. They had a 3-0 series lead over the Los Angeles Kings, and blew it.

Less than twenty-four-hours ago the Kings did away with San Jose in Game 7, in the Sharks’ own building. Comeback complete.

Congratulations to the Los Angeles Kings. They became the fourth team since 1942 to erase a 3-0 series deficit and win in Game 7, completing an incredible rally.

Back to the Sharks choke job. It could be that five years from now we reminisce about postseason meltdowns and say, “losing a 3-0 series lead isn’t too uncommon anymore. It happens every few years. Didn’t the Sharks do it once? I can’t remember.”

Between 1942 and 2009, only twice in NHL history had a team given up a 3-0 series lead, lost four straight games, and been crowned as the ultimate chokers. That’s sixty-seven-years — two ultimate chokes.

However, in the past five years we’ve seen the 3-0 series lead evaporate twice. It is becoming more common.

In 2010, the Boston Bruins blew it against the Philadelphia Flyers. Boston had a 3-0 series lead. They lost four straight and went home hurt. But that Bruins team was riddled with injuries, and it won the Stanley Cup the following year, in 2011. The Bruins have been forgiven by the hockey gods.

The Sharks have coughed up a 3-0 series lead before, too. In 2011, San Jose claimed three wins to open a second-round series against the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings won the next three, forcing Game 7. The Sharks won the seventh at home, salvaging their pride. No such luck this time.

Questions will be asked in San Jose. This was the most memorable of all the Sharks choke jobs.

Losing four-straight games in the Stanley Cup playoffs after establishing a 3-0 series lead certainly feels, smells and looks like a legendary choke job. But the wound is fresh — like a train-wreck, it’s hard to look away right now. One day the pieces of debris will be in a scrap yard somewhere, and the scene of the crime won’t look so ugly.

In other words, if you remove the sequence of wins and losses from the equation, the Sharks simply played a seven-game-series against a great team and lost it in the final hour. But it’s hard to see it that way right now.

A few months into the future we may look back and say: “Well, in the Sharks defence, the Kings were just that good. They won the Stanley Cup again. Beat the Sharks, Ducks, Blackhawks, and Bruins in the Final. It was their year.”

The Kings may win the 2014 Stanley Cup without needing to win another game-seven along the way. Then what? Folks will say that San Jose gave the Cup winner its toughest challenge. There’s no shame in that. The Sharks can hold their heads a little higher if that hypothetical scenario comes to fruition.

Sure, the San Jose Sharks have done a bad thing, but they’re a good team. Good teams do bad things, sometimes. But it’s not all bad.

The Sharks always make the playoffs.

If the organizational goal of the San Jose Sharks is to compete for division titles and qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs every season, they need not take a look in the mirror on this day.

San Jose boasts the second longest active postseason streak in the league, having qualified for the Cup tournament in ten straight seasons. Well done. Seriously, that’s impressive.

As far as regular season success goes, the Sharks are a model franchise in a league full of teams that would be thrilled with five straight trips to the playoffs, let alone a run of ten. (In fact, I can think of a few franchises that would kill to play in two consecutive Stanley Cup tournaments.)

However, if it’s a Stanley Cup championship that is desired by the bigwigs in Northern California, they have not been happy with their team’s results over the past decade. Despite a ten-year streak of postseason action, the Sharks have yet to play a game in the Stanley Cup Final. Be it the Red Wings, Kings, Blackhawks or the year’s rendition of Cinderella, the Sharks are never the last team standing in the Western Conference, and there’s a reason for it.

It’s the core’s fault.

It’s always the core’s fault, in my opinion. A team’s top players form its core. These are the players who earn the most money, play the important minutes and shoulder the heavy responsibilities on the ice; they have the greatest influence on game outcomes.

You can blame coaches for each and every Sharks choke job — however many of them have passed through town during this core’s reign — but blame must always fall back on the players who actually play the games. They have ultimate control of the team’s fate.

Coaches are necessary, yes. They implement systems and strategies. Good coaches also inspire and get the most out of their players, too. But coaches are not puppeteers pulling strings from above the ice — the players themselves must be heroes sometimes.

A team’s identity is created by its core. And while it can be said that management create that identity by assembling the core, the Sharks’ core has been winning often enough to earn its right to stay together.

Who starts a rebuild when the playoffs are a foregone conclusion every season? No one. Some franchises get stuck with a good core that can’t win the Cup — which is exactly what has happened in San Jose, and it has happened in Vancouver and Washington as well. Fixing it is nearly impossible. Management often has to let the core run its course and hope for the best.

The Sharks’ core doesn’t win as many big games as it should, based on expectations. Their personality as a core is that of an easy-going bunch that folds against meaner, more determined clubs.

For example, Joe Thornton can be mean, but Dustin Brown is meaner. And Marleau: he’s determined. But Justin Williams of the Kings is more determined in big games, thus he repeatedly imposes his will on such games, regardless of the team he’s playing for.

The winners keep winning and the losing teams keep losing. Every core eventually becomes one or the other — a winning core or a losing core — and the Sharks core has long ago become one that always finds a way to lose.

I blame the core, because the alternative is to do what? — blame the fourth line? Blame the third defence pairing? Blame a string of coaching staffs? The common denominator is the core that repeatedly fails to win the Cup.

There’s only one Stanley Cup. Thirty teams, and one Cup. While I call-out the Sharks’ core from a desk, I’d also like to clarify that winning the Cup is rare. Good teams won’t win the thing. That’s the NHL. There’s a lot of good teams and only one Cup trophy awarded to one team when the playoffs conclude each year.

So, cue the questions. Does the Sharks’ core have enough character to win four rounds in a single Stanley Cup playoffs?

Does the core need to be dismantled?

Or is there simply a missing puzzle piece that can push the Sharks over the top?

Is this core fundamentally flawed in a way that will always deny it a Stanley Cup championship? If so, why is that? What needs to change? What doesn’t need to change about the San Jose Sharks’ core?

Good luck, Doug Wilson.

San Jose’s core, as talented as it is, seems to be missing one vital component — or perhaps several — that continuously prevent the team from winning the Stanley Cup.

Maybe the Sharks’ core doesn’t contain big game players like the core guys on Cup winning teams. Doesn’t mean they’re not great players in their own right, just means winning the Cup isn’t for them if it is they who must lead the way to victory.

When the core guys aren’t big game performers, a team ends up relying on its second tier players to score the big goals while the season’s on the line. Can the Sharks win a crucial game in which Wingels and Nieto must outscore Kopitar and Doughty? I don’t like their chances.

The core is more than Thornton and Marleau. The Sharks have Brent Burns, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, also. Great NHL players. None played hero last night. None played hero last year, either.

Thornton, Marleau and the rest are locked up to long-term contracts. The Sharks’ core probably isn’t going to change this summer. Maybe they’re only one piece away and don’t need to change much.

The bright side: early in the series against the Kings, the Sharks were too fast for L. A.. They displayed a speed and size combo that looked unbeatable. Maybe the Sharks need to own that identity better. With identity comes confidence. Confidence breeds success.

The Kings are forecheck like the Starks of Winterfell are Winter.

The Blackhawks own the puck possession identity, and the Sharks seem to be a second-class version of what Chicago is.

Bruins identity: Team.

Devils: Defence.

Maybe the Sharks’ core needs to brand itself in some way that is unique; create an identity they can own, and become synonymous with.

The Sharks don’t seem to possess the confidence the Cup winning teams have, and had before they ever won. Their biggest problem might simply be that they don’t know who they are as a team — what they stand for.

It’s beneficial for a team’s core to know who they are and make a point to tell the world what that is. If not, others put a label on you, and you may start to believe you are what you’re being labelled as.

What’s San Jose’s identity? Chokers. They need to change that. They need to stand for something in Northern California. And they need to make it so obvious what they stand for that the rest of the league knows: the San Jose Sharks are the best at this. They need to own something before they can win something.