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For top-seeded Sharks, it's now or never

by Eric Stephens
SAN JOSE, Calif. — A thick bank of clouds greeted the San Jose Sharks as they awoke Friday morning, glad to be back home to get ready for Game 5 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
But as far as omens go, the Sharks could have used something better than rising to a gray sky. All it
did was serve as a reminder of their dreary performance in Game 4 Thursday night against the Anaheim Ducks, a loss that has put them in a hole they never imagined.

Seven months of building the best record in the NHL and earning home-ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs will all be for naught if the Sharks don’t win Saturday night at HP Pavilion as they stare at a 3-1 deficit leveled by the upstart Ducks.

"It’s do-or-die," said Patrick Marleau, San Jose’s longtime captain. "The desperation has got to be there."

The Sharks were back at work Friday, trying to put to bed a 4-0 loss in a pivotal Game 4 at Anaheim. After seemingly building its level of performance through each of the first three games, San Jose was thoroughly dominated in every facet by an Anaheim team that isn’t playing like a No. 8 seed.

No offense. Miscues on defense. Shaky goaltending.

The cumulative effort made for an even longer flight back to the Bay Area.

"I took a sleeping pill," Sharks center Joe Thornton said. "I wouldn’t have slept very well without it."

Game 4 was tough to stomach for any San Jose fan.

The Sharks were completely powerless against Anaheim’s big twenty-something line of Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, which combined for three of the four goals and racked up six points. Ryan’s two goals give him four in the series to lead all players.

In turn, San Jose’s biggest guns – Thornton, Marleau and winger Devin Setoguchi – have just Marleau’s winning Game 3 goal between them. If it wasn’t for five combined points by defensemen Dan Boyle and Rob Blake in that game, the Sharks might be cleaning out their lockers.

Thornton, in particular, had a disastrous Game 4 against the Ducks as he was a minus-3 on the night and either committed a turnover or was knocked off the puck on the plays that led to all three goals by the Ducks’ young trio.

"I thought I had a good game in Game 3 and I thought I’d build off that," Thornton said. "For whatever reason, I just didn’t have the game. That’s all."

Poor play isn’t limited to Thornton or Marleau, who have been the two lightning rods for criticism.
The second scoring line of Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski and Milan Michalek has produced one goal and two assists, with Michalek being held pointless. All-Star goalie Evgeni Nabokov is being outplayed by the Ducks’ playoff ingénue Jonas Hiller, who has shutouts in two of his first four NHL postseason starts.

"We can challenge the core of our hockey club," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "As I mentioned last night in Anaheim, the core has to be better than their core. We can talk to the foot soldiers and ask them if they’re going to step up and contribute a little bit more. We can talk about things tactically but quite frankly I’m not sure that that’s a bigger issue than some of the others that we have."

Ultimately, McLellan said, "your best players have to be your best players."

Thornton agreed.

"I’ve got to play my best game tomorrow night and then, after that, play my best Tuesday and go on from there," he said.

The Sharks know that their reputation is at stake. If they don’t come all the way back, it will only reinforce the perception that they can’t get it done in the postseason.

Only this time, it would be dealing with a shocking first-round exit instead of answering questions about their inability to get out of the second round. It’s been five years since San Jose got to the Western Conference Finals, where it lost to Calgary.

And now the Sharks have sky-high Anaheim looking to finish off the upset.

"We need to put it away because we know what they can do when they get some momentum and they get rolling," Perry told the Orange County Register. "We have to step on ’em and be in their face right from the get-go."

"Right now, our character’s being questioned," McLellan said Friday. "And it’s our job, as an organization, as coaches, as individuals and [in] group play, to prove people right or wrong. We have to squash the reputation that we’ve developed, whether rightfully or wrongfully so. But it’s out there."

Jeremy Roenick signed with San Jose two years ago in the hopes that the Sharks were his avenue to a Stanley Cup that would top off his prolific career. Roenick said the pertinent question is whether his guys will fold under pressure or step to the forefront.

"It’s about how you deal with adversity when things are really tough," he said. "Are you going to crawl under a rock and wilt or are you going step up and show a little teeth? You can go down the list of things. That doesn’t matter now. We can’t change what’s happened so far. We have to try to find a solution to it."

As reporters’ tape recorders captured every word, McLellan reaffirmed his faith in his team.

"But this morning, you wake up and hey, we still have games to play. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We realize, as a team, we can do this. We still feel comfortable with the team we’ve got. We’ve just got to stay positive and optimistic."
-- Joe Thornton

"I believe there’s a ton of character in that room," he said. "For whatever reason, some players aren’t bringing it out. Pressure, tension, whatever it may be. But there’s really no pressure on us now. We’re behind. There aren’t any excuses. Nobody can be feeling sorry for themselves.

"Do we believe in the group? Absolutely. You’d be crazy not to. Fifty-three wins playing a pretty good brand of hockey. We just believe we can do it again. At least for three periods."

Friday represented a day of closure for the Sharks. Saturday will determine whether there are any more days left to resurrect their flagging Cup aspirations.

"It’s done," Thornton said, reflecting on Game 4. "But this morning, you wake up and hey, we still have games to play. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We realize, as a team, we can do this. We still feel comfortable with the team we’ve got. We’ve just got to stay positive and optimistic."

Eventually, the clouds that enveloped downtown San Jose gave way to brilliant sunshine. The Sharks can only hope things brighten up that quickly for themselves.

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