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Sharks Without Teeth

Long on both talent and playoff disappointments, San Jose is scrambling to make the postseason. Is this the end of the road for the league's most underachieving franchise?

If the Sharks squeak into the playoffs, it will be due in large part to the clutch play of Joe Pavelski. The center's pair of goals last Saturday night in San Jose's 3--0 win over the Stars—with whom the Sharks are locked in a furious battle for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference—were his sixth and seventh in the last nine games. "He's just a dirty player," said San Jose captain Joe Thornton, who meant it as a compliment. "He gets in dirty areas, he wills himself in front of the net. A lot of guys don't want to necessarily go there."

As the postseason looms, the Sharks (40-29-10) find themselves in an unpleasant, unfamiliar area: on the cusp of playoff elimination. The Men of Teal are notorious for underachieving once the tournament starts. But give them credit: At least they get there. San Jose, which has never won a Stanley Cup, has missed the postseason just once since 1996--97. At week's end, with three games left in the regular season, the Sharks' 90 points were good for eighth place in the Western Conference, one point ahead of Pacific Division rival Dallas and two in front of the Avalanche. But San Jose seems to be coming to life—"playing the way we're capable of playing," general manager Doug Wilson said earlier in the week.

After losing to the Canucks in five games last spring in the Western Conference finals, Wilson made a series of moves designed to finally get this club over the hump. Two, in particular, sum up the Sharks' season:

• On July 3, Wilson dealt sniper Dany Heatley—an October-through-March dynamo who evaporated in the postseason (he scored five goals in 32 playoff games with San Jose)—to the Wild for winger Martin Havlat, a speedy, gifted scorer. Havlat has been a flop, literally. Hopping the boards during a line change in mid-December, he fell awkwardly, tearing a hamstring and missing three months. He has six goals this season.

• At the Feb. 27 trade deadline Wilson shipped rugged wing Jamie McGinn to Colorado for Daniel Winnik and TJ Galiardi. McGinn promptly blew up, scoring eight goals in his first 13 games. The ex-Avs have produced a grand total of two goals and one assist.

As offensive duds, they have plenty of company in the San Jose dressing room. After Logan Couture (30 goals), Pavelski (31) and Patrick Marleau (28), no Sharks player has scored more than 16 times.

"We've been a team in transition," said coach Todd McLellan earlier in the week. "We're trying to find our identity."

That identity has already been established. This is a skilled team with elite-level talent and a well-regarded coach and front office. Wilson has drafted shrewdly and never shied from a blockbuster deal if he thought it served his team. His greatest fault may turn out to have been excessive loyalty to certain core players. Marleau and Thornton (16 goals, 58 assists) are huge talents who also happen to be common denominators in San Jose's perennial swoons. Marleau, who in 2008 bunny-hopped out of the way of a Mike Modano shot that went for a goal in a postseason loss to the Stars, has 15 playoff goals over the past two seasons; the hulking yet deferential Thornton, a former Hart Trophy winner who isn't known as a physical player, has assisted on many of them. But neither embodies the grit, urgency and relentlessness that is a team's most vital currency during the grind of an NHL postseason. Should the Sharks miss these playoffs—or should they squeak in and flame out early—Wilson would seem to have little choice but to send one or both of them packing.

If he's still around himself. The Sharks' G.M. serves at the pleasure of an opaque, 11-person ownership consortium that may or may not harbor the same depth of patience for Wilson as Wilson had for Marleau and Thornton.

If the team backslides—either by failing to reach the playoffs or by bowing out prematurely—there will be calls to purge the front office. "We haven't backslid," replies Wilson, who sees San Jose's struggles this season as "an opportunity to show what you're made of."

The truth is, we already have a pretty good idea what they're made of: a gifted group of players that is, year after year, less than the sum of its parts.

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TO THE BITTER END Despite an able coach in McLellan (blue suit) and such talents as Thornton (19) and Marleau (12), the Sharks appear to have produced yet another lemon.