SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - Just seven days before the San Jose Sharks packed their bags for the summer, they had a 2-1 playoff series lead on the Detroit Red Wings and every reason to think they would be playing deep into the postseason.
Then the Sharks' fortunes plunged into the same decline that claimed their previous two campaigns, with three straight losses sending them home - and into another round of questions about whether they're true title contenders or just a regular-season dynamo.
The Sharks have enjoyed three straight winning campaigns, capped by the best regular season in franchise history this spring. They've won 22 playoff games since the start of the 2004 post-season - currently more than any other playoff team during that stretch.
Sure, the Sharks are a good team. But will they ever be a great club that's capable of contending for a championship? Not even coach Ron Wilson knows for sure.
"It will take until next May, when we get to the same point, and then you've got to crash through the glass ceiling, or whatever this boundary is," Wilson said Tuesday, a day after the Sharks' season ended with a 2-0 loss to the Red Wings.
"Personally, I think you have to stay the course," Wilson added. "The Red Wings didn't blow up their team. They stayed with it. ... I want to win now, and that's the attitude I want our players to take out of this. We're going to bash our way through, and I have to figure out some kind of way."
With Joe Thornton and captain Patrick Marleau leading the way, the Sharks have no visible holes in their roster's enviable mix of young talent and proven veterans. Nearly all of their key contributors are signed through next season, and Wilson figures to be back along with his respected coaching staff.
But eight months of steady excellence aren't worth much when a playoff skid hits - and this isn't the first time such a problem has occurred in San Jose. Last spring, the Sharks lost four straight games after taking a 2-0 lead over the Edmonton Oilers. In 2004, San Jose lost two straight to the Calgary Flames in the Western Conference final - part of four straight home losses to finish an otherwise successful post-season.
"We've got the right people in the right places, but it just didn't work," said Marleau, who revealed he separated his shoulder in February, but kept playing after a short time out of the lineup. "You look back, and there's a bunch of things you could have done differently. There were chances, and there were things that didn't go our way."
Once emotions cool, the Sharks will realize there's little shame in this post-season. After finishing tied for the NHL's fifth-best record in the regular season, they beat the Nashville Predators - the league's third overall club - in five games before falling in six games to Detroit, the second-best regular-season team.
But the way San Jose lost is what will keep Wilson thinking all summer: The Sharks scored just nine goals in their six games against Detroit.
That number is less of a testament to Red Wings goalie Dominik Hasek and more of an indictment of the floundering Sharks, who went 2-for-27 on the power play to complete an atrocious 4-for-57 post-season performance after having the NHL's second-best power play in the regular season.
"We had such a good regular season, and blowing by Nashville the way we did, it's disappointing to be out in the second round," said Thornton, who became just the third player in NHL history to have back-to-back 90-assist seasons largely because of his power-play proficiency.
"It's just tough right now, because we had a real good team. But it's not like we lost to a middleweight team. They're good."
The Sharks have only a handful of free agents, but newcomers Craig Rivet and Bill Guerin are among them. Their veteran presence failed to do much for the Sharks' composure when it mattered most.
Rivet, a dependable 32-year-old defenceman, seems to be a good fit for another term in San Jose - particularly if free agent Scott Hannan, who didn't live up to expectations this year, goes elsewhere.
But general manager Doug Wilson has been obsessively devoted to developing his young players on the job in the NHL, which probably means Guerin will be somewhere else next season.
Vesa Toskala also might be done in teal as he enters the final season of his contract. After alternating starts during the regular season in an uneasy platoon with Evgeni Nabokov, Toskala lost his job when he got hurt and Nabokov played brilliantly through the playoffs.
The Sharks tried to trade one of their goalies last summer, but found no takers. With Toskala just one season away from leaving for nothing, expect Wilson to renew his search for a new home for either netminder.
"My first choice is to stay here and see a lot of ice time," Toskala said. "That's what I'm hoping for, but it's not in our control."