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That Sinking Feeling

After a string of spectacular playoff flameouts, the Sharks are back for another go—retooled and rededicated. But this postseason already feels awfully familiar

Around 10 o'clock on Sunday night Dan Boyle emerged from a curtained area in the visitors' dressing room at the Pepsi Center in Denver. The San Jose Sharks' All-Star defenseman was wearing a dark suit and a pained expression. Taking a seat in front of his stall, he called to mind a reluctant witness in the moments before a hostile cross-examination. "He's only going to do this once," a San Jose media-relations assistant informed reporters.

Sharks fans sure hope so.

Some 20 minutes earlier Boyle had unleashed the most thunderous cheers of the evening when his attempt to pass the puck behind his own net went terribly awry. Until that point, 51 seconds into overtime, the Sharks had dominated play to an almost comical extent, outshooting the Colorado Avalanche, their first-round playoff opponents, 51--16. San Jose, however, had been unable to get a puck past Craig Anderson, the Avs' journeyman goaltender who'd spent the evening channeling Patrick Roy.

As the puck left Boyle's stick blade, it glanced off the shaft of the stick wielded by Avs center Ryan O'Reilly. The redirected puck ricocheted off the right leg of Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov and into the net. Just like that the eighth-seeded Avalanche had a 1--0 victory and a 2--1 series lead over top seed San Jose.

"I can't believe it," said Boyle, who kept staring down at the carpet as if looking for a hole in which to hide. "I'm gonna have nightmares for sure."

More upbeat was Nabokov: "We played well. If we're going to continue to play that way, we'll be rewarded."

Yes, Evgeni, isn't it pleasant to think so? But it would be much more in keeping with the recent history of this 19-year-old franchise if the Sharks keep right on losing to a team that logic and regular-season statistics say they should be dominating. Mysteriously, yet consistently, these great whites of the regular season become dogfish in the playoffs.

Since reaching the 2004 Western Conference finals, in which they fell to Calgary in six games, the Sharks have reeled off seasons of 99, 107, 108, 117 and 113 points, never finishing lower than second in the Pacific Division. For two years running they've been the No. 1 seed in the West. Yet over the last four years they've won a meager three playoffs series, never advancing past the second round. Last year's episode of premature capitulation was more embarrassing than most. Winners of the Presidents' Trophy as the league's top regular-season squad, the Sharks were bounced in six games by the eighth-seeded Ducks, leading to a number of jokes about how the NHL's preeminent choke artists needed an Anaheim-lich maneuver.

Why should a team that looks so good on paper find itself with so much free time every spring? One theory holds that the Sharks simply lack the extra playoff gear possessed by true Cup contenders. The jump from regular- to postseason requires an exponential increase in intensity—a leap that, for whatever reason, San Jose seems unable to make. As 40-year-old captain Rob Blake has posited, the Sharks don't get any worse come springtime, they just don't get any better.

That's not for lack of shaking things up. Sharks G.M. Doug Wilson replaced coach Ron Wilson with Todd McLellan after the 2007--08 season. Following last year's crack-up the G.M. traded for hulking sniper Dany Heatley, a two-time 50-goal scorer. And intent on increasing what he refers to as the "sandpaper" quotient of his roster, Wilson also added corner-scouring, shot blocking two-way gladiators Manny Malhotra, Jed Ortmeyer and Scott Nichol, a 5'9", 178-pound superpest whom Wilson describes, admiringly, as "an absolute pr--- to play against."

The sandpaper crew made Wilson look smart in Game 2 last Friday night. Both Malhotra and Nichol scored in San Jose's 6--5 overtime win, which saw the Sharks come back from five deficits. Those rallies "speak to our resilience," said Malhotra, who won eight of his 10 face-offs and scored just the second playoff goal of his 12-year career. "Everybody provided energy."

But not everybody provided offense. None of the goal scorers in Game 2—Malhotra, Blake, Nichol, Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi—skate on the Sharks' top line. Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton amassed an eye-popping 103 regular-season goals this year. After playing as a unit for Team Canada at the Olympics, they were dubbed the Gold Medal Line. But through three playoff games, the trio had produced zero goals and was in danger of being renamed the Zip Line.

The chronic lack of production from "the Big Boys," as Wilson calls them, is the single biggest reason for San Jose's perennial springtime fade. It's a sensitive subject in the dressing room. Marleau and Thornton are huge talents and good guys: selfless, kind, friendly. But for the last three seasons they've disappeared for long stretches in the playoffs. Following the Ducks debacle Wilson faced considerable pressure to unload Marleau. Whether it was a gesture of loyalty to a 12-year Shark or the result of not finding enough trade value for him, he couldn't bring himself to trade the leading scorer in team history. He did, however strip him of the captaincy.

It had to be done. In 2007, with the Sharks leading their second-round series against Detroit 2--1 and nursing a one-goal lead in the final seconds of Game 4, Marleau, looking for an empty netter, got caught cheating on the wrong side of the puck. The Red Wings broke in and tied the score. Detroit won that game and, eventually, the series.

In the second round against Dallas the next year Marleau committed his notorious "bunny hop," elevating off the ice to avoid a Mike Modano shot that found the back of the net. It's bad enough to bunny hop, it's inexcusable when the hopper is also the captain.

It was telling that when Wilson relieved Marleau of the C, he didn't hand it to Thornton. It's not completely fair to dis Jumbo, as the 6'4", 245-pound center is known, for failing to pile up playoff goals. A born playmaker, he led the league in scoring five years ago with 125 points—96 of them assists. But his playoff scoring average has long lagged far behind his regular-season production.

"When the pace picked up in the Olympics, Joe didn't always have the easiest time keeping up," says one Western Conference scout. "[When] the speed of the game goes to a really high level, he's not as special a player."

Heatley was supposed to pick up that slack, and his hard-nosed play won the respect of teammates. "It isn't just that he scores," says Sharks defenseman Doug Murray. "He scores from the right areas"—those bitterly contested square feet in front of the net. "He scores important goals. He likes the big stage."

The stage certainly was not small late in the first period of Game 2 when Heatley had the puck on his stick and Anderson on his belly, but his point-blank shot hit the crossbar. It didn't matter. San Jose's second line of Pavelski, Setoguchi and Ryane Clowe saved the day with three goals. Call them the Bailout Line.

But there was no bailout forthcoming against the upstart Avs on Sunday night. With Heatley out of the lineup, suffering from an undisclosed injury, Marleau and Thornton went goalless again, and the Sharks failed to cash in a pair of third-period power plays.

"When you get opportunities like that," said a deeply frustrated Blake, "you've got to put them in the net. That's the next level for us. We need to get to that level. We've got to force ourselves to get to that level."

There's no question San Jose has the players to win a Cup. "We don't need any one guy to carry this team," says Wilson, "but we need everyone to bring something every night. If you have that in your game, at some point your talent will take over."

The Sharks are still waiting.

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Chronic lack of production from "the Big Boys" is the main reason for San Jose's perennial springtime fade.


Photographs by ROBERT BECK

POINT TAKEN This Game 2 goal by Setoguchi (16) was disallowed, but he and Malhotra (right) combined for three others in the Sharks' win.


Photographs by ROBERT BECK

NET FLICK Heatley missed this gimme in Game 2 and had yet to score, putting pressure on Nabokov (above).