I originally came up with this premise for The Hockey Writers, but since I am no longer writing over there, I have moved this series to Bleacher Report. This is the introductory article...
The San Jose Sharks have choked in the playoffs two years in a row. You heard me, I am only calling the last two years chokes. Here's why:
- In 2006, the Edmonton Oilers became a different team when they
traded for Dwayne Roloson at the deadline. Sure, they barely made it
into the playoffs, but they would have won the Cup if Roloson did not
After Roloson went down, Ty Conklin misplayed a puck that allowed a game-tying goal. If Roloson is in that goal is not scored; because of it, the game went into overtime and they then lost. Consequently, they lost the series 4-3; thus, without that goal, the Oilers win that game, and therefore Lord Stanley's Cup in six games.
- In 2007, the Sharks were less than minute away from taking a
commanding 3-1 lead in the series. But Robert Lang scored for the
visiting Red Wings, who went on to win in overtime and did not lose
again in the series. But the fifth seed losing to the top seed is not a
choke; sometimes the other team is just better.
Thus, the first real choke was in 2008. The Sharks added Brian Campbell, the puck-moving defenceman General Manager Doug Wilson felt they needed, and were the best team from mid-February on. They finished with the second-best record in the NHL.
In a first-round game, they were up 3-0 early until Calgary lined them up with physical play; they went down without so much as a whimper, showing a lack of spine. They managed to win that series, but it took them a full seven games.
Then the Sharks dropped the first two at home in the second round against Dallas en route to digging a 3-0 series hole. Only two teams have ever come back from such a hole, and no one had for over 25 years.
How did they find themselves in that pickle? By not taking care of the details, like blocking shots (Patrick Marleau even jumped out of the way of a shot, providing a screen to his own goalie, in a one-goal loss), battling in front of the net, and winning races to loose pucks.
They climbed back into the series with two consecutive wins, only to lose a four-OT thriller, 2-1, in Game Six.
One reason was the blueline, which had only one player 30 or more years old and was outplayed in both rounds. Another reason was a lack of proven winners, with no one on the roster who had ever won a Stanley Cup.
Thus, in the offseason they seemed to two birds with one stone, signing Rob Blake and trading for Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich. All three were over 30 and had won at least one Cup.
Even when the Sharks had the best record in the league, they added Claude Lemieux (four rings and a Conn Smythe Trophy). As if this was not enough championship experience, at the deadline they traded for Travis Moen and Ken Huskins, who had each won the Cup in 2007 with Anaheim.
The result: San Jose won the President's Trophy, and was in the top eight in the league in all significant categories--scoring, defence, shots for, shots against, power play, penalty kill, and faceoffs.
No matter, as they repeated their mistakes of 2008 by losing two home games to a team with the worst record in the playoffs. Just like the previous year, being out-fought in front of the net and being out-hustled for loose pucks. (They did do a pretty good job of blocking shots, however.)
They were blown out on the road in Games Four and Six, even though they faced elimination in the latter game. In Game Five they blew a two-goal third-period lead and needed overtime to win.
No fight, no focus, no fear or urgency. After Game Two, Joe Thornton said they would be fine as long as they kept doing what they were doing.
Really? When you have scored just two goals in about 80 shots.
It was not until after they lost their third game that they admitted they had not played "desperate hockey." It was evident that they were overconfident.
If you have been reading my columns, some of this might seem familiar. But trust me, from the perspective of a Sharks fan, it bears repeating. And it lays the groundwork for the series I will be writing between now and the NHL Draft in late June.
What has happened to this point has not worked. These players are mentally soft; it is time for the clash between the ways of the past and of the present. Hence my series title, taken from The Clash's 80's hit, "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"
I will be examining every player whose contract is up this off-season, plus a couple other key players, to determine what I would say if they walked into my office and asked that question.
Here are the NHL players whose contracts are up:
- Restricted: Ryane Clowe, Marcel Goc, and Torrey Mitchell. Only Mitchell is not eligible for arbitration.
- Unrestricted: Mike Grier, Jeremy Roenick, Travis Moen, Tomas Plihal, Claude Lemieux, Rob Blake, Alexei Semenov, Kent Huskins, and Brian Boucher.
I will start the series in early June with an article on all the team's restricted free agents not eligible for arbitration, including those in the minor-league or junior-hockey system.