- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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LOS ANGELES -- You were in the wrong dressing room here Tuesday night if you were looking for anyone to acknowledge what the San Jose Sharks achieved this season.
No, in the visitors’ room at Staples Center, there were only looks of despair and heartbreak after a hard-fought series with the Los Angeles Kings ended with a Game 7 loss.
Logan Couture sat dejectedly in his stall, looking into space as if hoping to wake up from a nightmare.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s tough,” Couture said. “It’s been a long year. We battled hard to get to where we were. We made some changes and played a good first round, then forced, I think, the best team in the league to seven games and almost beat them in their building. It’s tough to take.”
“We played our hearts out, and that’s all you can ask of each other,” added captain Joe Thornton.
This was a team that was headed absolutely nowhere in February. The Sharks couldn’t score, they couldn’t skate and they didn’t look like a team worthy of a playoff berth, which is why GM Doug Wilson took honest stock back then of what he had and decided it was time to “reset” his roster, planting the seeds for the eventual trades of veterans Douglas Murray, Ryane Clowe and Michal Handzus.
They were all pending unrestricted free agents after the season, and Wilson had seen enough of his team midway through the season to know he had to get younger and faster. Years of contending had had its impact. It was time to remold the group, a process which will continue in the offseason.
But at that time, about the last thing anybody in San Jose truly believed was that they’d end up just one win away from the Western Conference finals.
“Definitely credit to the guys for turning this thing around because it was looking pretty dark and ugly for a while,” veteran blueliner Dan Boyle said.
A strange thing happened in early April after Murray, Handzus and Clowe were dealt away: The team came together and started winning games.
Feeding off a sense that nobody believed in them, the Sharks molded into a tight-knit group that felt it could prove people wrong. The team did so by upsetting Vancouver in the opening round -- in four straight games no less -- and impressed in the manner in which they took the Kings to the very end.
The loss of Raffi Torres to suspension after Game 1 against the Kings was a factor, Boyle said.
“We had to shift our lines a little bit after losing Raffi, and I think that hurt us a little bit,” Boyle said. “We had [Joe] Pavelski on the third line in the first round and that gave us a balanced scoring attack. With Raffi out, Pavs went up [to Couture’s line]. It’s not the way we were playing in the last month and a half.”
Couture acknowledged afterward that he had been playing on an injured ankle he suffered in Game 3 -- a game in which he returned to score in OT -- which required an injection every game just to play. But he refused to use that as an excuse.
“I was able to play 100 percent,” Couture said, his face buried in his hands.
Top blueliner Marc-Edouard Vlasic also gutted it out, confirming to me after Game 7 that he’d been playing with a hairline fracture in his right foot since Game 4, which required freezing the nerves in his foot before playing.
“But lots of guys in this room were playing hurt, just like the Kings," Vlasic said. "It’s no excuse.”
So what now? Thornton and Boyle both have one year left on their contracts. Are they part of Wilson’s roster reset, which will continue this summer? Or do both vets, or only one of them, stay on?
“It’s tough to look at the future right now," Boyle said. "We’ll see what happens this summer, but obviously we have something going well with this team."
Thornton and Boyle were both terrific in these playoffs, and you wonder just how badly they wanted this given where they see the team heading.
“It’s disappointing right now,” Thornton said. “We were just having so much fun. It’s disappointing that it has to end, because we were really enjoying this. It’s a tough way to finish.”
But it’s a team that needs more depth, too. They didn’t get a single goal from any of their bottom-six forwards -- not counting Pavelski, who moved up a line -- in two playoff rounds. Tough to win when you’re counting so hard on your top players all the time.
All in all, though, considering how the season looked in February and March, it's hard not to feel somewhat satisfied if you’re a Sharks fan in the end. This isn’t a team that folded under expectations. It’s a team that achieved more than was expected from them this time around.
10dScott Burnside and Craig Custance