SAN JOSE, Calif. - While the NHL's top four teams began preparations for the conference finals Monday, the San Jose Sharks had the day off to get ready for one more summer they'll spend feeling like hockey's fifth wheel.
The Sharks lost a second-round playoff series in six games for the third straight season Sunday night, falling to the Dallas Stars in a four-overtime thriller. To many frustrated fans and league observers, the loss cemented San Jose's place as the NHL's most talented mediocrity, a regular-season powerhouse that consistently makes post-season noise but just can't manufacture the luck or the will necessary for a serious pursuit of the Stanley Cup.
San Jose has won five series and 28 playoff games over the last four seasons, but hasn't gone further than the Western Conference finals in 2004. The Sharks had the NHL's second-best regular season record this season, surging from the middle of the conference playoff pack during a 20-game streak without a regulation defeat late in the year, only to end the season in the exact same spot as the last two.
"There's no consolation in how well you played or how long the game went," said veteran forward Curtis Brown, among several Sharks with uncertain futures. "It's very disappointing. We had higher expectations and higher hopes than what we did this year."
Yet for all the disappointment and soul-searching that's bound to be part of general manager Doug Wilson's off-season, this defeat contained signs of growth and optimism for Team Teal.
Sure, the Sharks lost their second-round series in exactly six games yet again, but at least there were seven games of playing time crammed into those six, with more than 129 minutes of hockey in Game 6 before Brenden Morrow's winning power-play goal. Perhaps that was one thought that gave the Sharks comfort as their plane raced the sun back to California after that epic loss.
In the two previous seasons, the Sharks appeared to collapse under playoff pressure after taking early series leads against Edmonton and Detroit. This year, they pushed back after falling behind 0-3 in a series featuring four overtime games and five one-goal decisions - but the Stars were stronger, or luckier, or both.
"We outshot them, out-chanced them, but we didn't win on the scoreboard, and that's the only place that it really matters," coach Ron Wilson said. "It showed (in Game 6) why we finished where we did and how good defensively we are, but (Dallas goalie Marty) Turco had our number on a boatload of chances. When you're on the road and you completely outshoot a team like we did in overtime, it's saying something for your team."
The Sharks even did it without forward Milan Michalek, who missed the overtimes and left Dallas with his arm in a sling after taking a hard hit from Morrow. Wilson refused to answer questions on Michalek's health after the game, calling it "irrelevant."
Doug Wilson was furious after last season's loss to the Red Wings, and he took most of the next month to evaluate every part of his club. He ended up making no major additions in the off-season, keeping Ron Wilson and his staff on their jobs and deciding to nurture his talented young core.
Doug Wilson's biggest addition this season was Brian Campbell, the defenceman acquired from Buffalo in a trade-deadline deal. After an outstanding regular season, he ended an inconsistent playoff run in the penalty box after tripping Loui Eriksson to set up Brenden Morrow's winning power-play goal.
Campbell averaged more than 29 minutes per game in the post-season after factoring in his jaw-dropping 56:23 in ice time in Game 6.
"There was a lot of confidence in this room," said Campbell, a free agent this summer. "You still think it's possible. It could have gone either way with a couple of overtime games there, so we really didn't feel like we were in that hole as much because we were right there with them."
Ron Wilson's future will be among the top debates after the Sharks clean out their lockers Tuesday. He has led the Sharks to the longest sustained success in franchise history, yet San Jose's fans have begun to take good regular seasons for granted in their thirst for post-season success.
"I'm very proud of our team," Wilson said. "We get questioned on character. One person mentions it, and a whole damn group of media jumps on it instead of doing their homework. We've showed character all season long."