It really did seem like it was going to be the San Jose Sharks‘ year.
Just a few weeks ago, they were resting up after dispatching the favoured Los Angeles Kings in a surprisingly swift five games. When the Nashville Predators knocked off the Anaheim Ducks in seven, that set San Jose up with an unexpected home ice advantage, and they used it to jump out to a 2-0 series lead. After years of playoff disappointment, it looked like everything was falling into place for the Sharks to finally exceed expectations, and maybe even win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
Things change quickly in the post-season. After failing to close out the series in Nashville on Monday, the Sharks now face a Game 7 tonight — one that most didn’t think they’d need against the wildcard Predators.
The Sharks still head into tonight as the favourite; they’ve got home ice, and have won all three games played at the SAP Center in the series. They’re the better team on paper. And a win would send them to a Conference Final matchup against the St. Louis Blues that they’d have a good chance to win.
But a loss… a loss, and we’re right back to where we always seems to be with this team. So today, let’s take a look back over the Sharks’ history of playoff disappointment.
1991 – 1999: THE EARLY YEARS
The team: We’ll lump the first eight years of franchise history into one entry, since they really didn’t have anything to do with the Sharks’ current reputation. After two years of record-breaking expansion futility, the Sharks broke through with their first decent season in 1993-94, making the playoffs and then shocking the Detroit Red Wings in the opening round.
The disappointment: Any playoff loss hurts, but it would be hard to call any of these post-season performances a disappointment. The Sharks were never favoured, and in fact were never even a .500 team. And looking back, only their second round matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1994, in which they were one Johan Garpenlov crossbar away from advancing, feels like a series that got away.
Heartbreak rating: 2/10. Sure, the first few years of incompetence were rough. But those upsets against the Red Wings and Flames were fun, and the rest of it pretty much played out according to script.
The team: The Sharks crack the .500 mark for the first time in franchise history. That’s enough to sneak them into the playoffs as an eight seed, where they draw the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Blues. Nobody gives them much of a chance, but they jump out to a 3-1 series lead before pulling off a Game 7 upset that’s punctuated with Owen Nolan’s long-distance dagger.
The disappointment: Coming off the high of that win, the Sharks sputter out of the gate against the Dallas Stars in Round 2. They’re shut out in each of the first two games and lose the series in five.
Heartbreak rating: 1/10. Maybe it didn’t end up being a Cinderella run, but that Blues upset was one of the highlights of franchise history.
The team: The Sharks record a franchise-best 95 points, and finish second in the Pacific. This version of the team was led by Nolan and a 21-year-old Patrick Marleau, supported by a cast of “Wait, that guy played for the Sharks?” veterans like Gary Suter, Mike Ricci and Vincent Damphousse. Teemu Selanne arrives late in the season, and Evgeni Nabokov earns the Calder Trophy for his work in goal.
The disappointment: In a Round 1 rematch with the Blues, the Sharks drop a six-game series that could have gone either way. The turning point comes in Game 5, in which the Sharks take a 2-1 lead into the third but end up dropping a 3-2 decision on overtime on Bryce Salvador’s winner.
Heartbreak rating: 3/10. Expectations are slowly but surely increasing, and simply making an appearance in the post-season no longer feels like mission accomplished. Still, if you have to lose to someone, it was kind of nice to see it be the Blues. Those guys are stuck with a reputation for never winning anything in the playoffs.
The team: The Sharks record 99 points to lead their division for the first time. It’s a veteran group – Adam Graves even makes an appearance – and it leans heavily on its goaltending duo of Nabokov and rookie Miikka Kiprusoff. They make it out of the First Round, beating the then-Phoenix Coyotes in six games and setting up a Second Round meeting with the Colorado Avalanche.
The disappointment: The Sharks lead the series three separate times, but can’t close. They hold a 3-2 series lead heading into Game 6 at home, but lose in overtime on a Peter Forsberg goal in a game marked by a third period earthquake. Then they drop a 1-0 decision in the seventh game, with Selanne missing an open net early on that could have changed the course of the game.
Heartbreak rating: 5/10. The loss to the Avalanche may not have been an upset, but the way it played out left a mark.
The team: After what seemed like a breakout season, the Sharks unravel in 2002-03 and miss the playoffs. They fire coach Darryl Sutter in December, and GM Dean Lombardi follows a few months later. Spoiler alert: Those two guys show up again later.
The disappointment: The Sharks don’t even come close to the post-season, finishing 19 points back. They do wind up with two first round picks in the ridiculously stacked 2003 draft, but can only turn them into Milan Michalek and Steve Bernier. The two players taken right after the Sharks’ picks: Ryan Suter and Zach Parise.
Heartbreak rating: 2/10. Disappointment? Definitely. Frustration? Sure. But this can’t really qualify as heartbreak.
The team: The Sharks roar back into the playoff picture with a 104-point season. They’re not exactly stacked – Nils Ekman is their second leading scorer – but they’re well-balanced and tough to score on. They beat the Blues and the Avalanche in the opening two rounds to advance to the Conference Final for the first time in franchise history. (That Avs series gets a little dicey – the Sharks take a 3-0 series lead, then lose back-to-back overtime games before winning game six – but otherwise it’s a fairly smooth ride.)
The disappointment: They end up facing the Flames, who are led by a couple of familiar faces: Sutter behind the bench and Kiprusoff in goal. The Sharks are the favorites, and a trip to the Cup final seems in sight. But they drop the first two games of the series at home, and end up losing in six.
Heartbreak rating: 4/10. On the one hand, the franchise is headed in the right direction again. On the other, they let a golden chance at a Final appearance slip through their fingers. They probably can’t wait to get back out there. Sure hope the league doesn’t cancel the next season.