After finishing the regular season on a 12-5-1 run then sweeping the Vancouver Canucks in a quarterfinal series, the San Jose Sharks appeared poised to return to the Western Conference Finals for the third time in four years.
But in the end, the Sharks' path came down to a winner-take-all Game 7 against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings -- a closely contested finale the Kings won, 2-1, to advance to the next round.
It was an abrupt end for the Sharks, who at times looked like a frontrunner to compete for the Stanley Cup, particularly when they opened the season with seven straight wins. In a series against the Kings that could have gone either way, the Sharks were eliminated by the slimmest of margins.
Here are five reasons the Sharks were eliminated:
1. Game 2 collapse
GAA: 1.87 | SVP: 0.930
Leading 3-2 with less than three minutes remaining in regulation, Brad Stuart took a tripping penalty, which was followed 22 seconds later by a delay-of-game call on Marc-Edouard Vlasic when the defenseman's clearing attempt went over the glass. The Kings power play pounced shortly thereafter, with Dustin Brown and Trevor Lewis scoring 22 seconds apart to steal the game late.
The 4-3 loss proved to be a lost opportunity for San Jose, whose three goals in the contest were the most they would score in any game in the series.
"We got three [goals]," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said after Game 2. "But when you get three, you better beat this team."
2. Can't beat Quick
The primary reason the Sharks were unable to repeat that three-goal performance was the outstanding play of Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick, who finished the series with two shutouts, a 1.43 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage. He saved some of his biggest stops for Game 7 and appears to have recaptured the form that earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy last year.
Quick's impenetrability against the Sharks unfortunately overshadowed an equally outstanding series from his counterpart, Antti Niemi. A finalist this season for the Vezina Trophy, Niemi did his best to match Quick save-for-save, posting a 1.86 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage. But those remarkable numbers still weren't enough.
"[Niemi] played an outstanding series and outstanding game," McLellan said after Game 7. "I don't know if you'll see that kind of goaltending in another series. It was a special series for goaltending."
3. Home ice
The Kings captured Game 7 to eliminate the Sharks, but one could make a compelling argument that the most important game between the teams took place during the regular season.
In each team's last game prior to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, San Jose lost 3-2 at Staples Center on April 27. The win allowed the Kings to clinch the Western Conference's fifth seed, which assured them of home ice when they met the Sharks in the second round. Considering San Jose has now failed to win in regulation at Staples Center since Jan. 1, 2011, that regular-season loss might have doomed the team.
"I think we played a best-of-8 series. The last game of the regular season was a 3-2 loss here [in Los Angeles] where we could have earned home ice," McLellan said after Game 7. "Who knows if we would have had a different opponent in the playoffs. In hindsight, looking back, we couldn't win here in five games straight, so home ice was a factor, as it was in our building."
4. Depth disappoints
But when it came time for someone else to provide secondary scoring, no one really answered the call. Other than those top five, one Sharks player, Brent Burns, scored more than a single goal in the postseason. After that, one Sharks forward, T.J Galiardi, scored in this series.
That top-heavy offensive attack proved unsustainable against a Kings team that seemed to get scoring from all kinds of places. Eight Kings have at least two goals in the postseason, and defenseman Slava Voynov's four are more than any Sharks player other than Couture, Marleau and Pavelski. Losing forward Raffi Torres, who was suspended for the remainder of the series following a hit to Jarret Stoll's head in Game 1, depleted the roster even more. And the Kings took advantage.
5. Couture's injury
SOG: 33 | +/-: -6
But Couture went pointless in the series' final three games, and what was revealed to be a sprained ankle seemed to severely hurt his productivity. Throw in an injury that kept forward Martin Havlat out of the series, and the Sharks, a team that had difficulty finding secondary scoring, were in a tough spot against the relatively healthy Kings.
"He was sore. There were some questions about his productivity after the injury," McLellan said of Couture after Game 7. "He played sore, a lot of our guys did, but a lot of their guys did, as well."