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Sharks' latest exit costs coach his job

by Doug Ward

The San Jose Sharks' third straight second-round playoff exit cost head coach Ron Wilson his job. Watch Sharks-Stars highlight video
There was no Stanley Cup parade in San Jose this spring, so changes were inevitable in Silicon Valley after the Sharks exited the postseason in the second round for the third year in a row. General Manager Doug Wilson was left to decide whether it made more sense to shuffle his roster or make a change behind the bench. He chose the latter by dismissing coach Ron Wilson and hiring Red Wings assistant Todd McLellan.

But was the coach really the problem?

Ron Wilson won more games than any other NHL coach over the last five years and, in some ways, was a victim of the inflated expectations he helped to create. The Sharks’ early exit came after another regular season that promised so much more.

The Sharks finished the regular season by going 18-2-2, but there was little carryover to the postseason. San Jose managed to beat Calgary in seven games in the first round, and then battled to a heartbreaking six-game series loss to Dallas in round two. At least this year's Sharks were valiant in defeat, rallying from a 3-0 series deficit to force a Game 6 that they pushed to four overtimes before Dallas prevailed.

While the end once again came all too early, it was clear that the Sharks never quit on Wilson — or themselves — during their playoff appearance.

"We have nothing to hang out heads about," Wilson said.

True enough. After failing into a 3-0 hole against Dallas, the Sharks did not give up. Of course, the real problem was falling into such a deep hole in the first place.

The Sharks played well at times during the postseason, just not often enough and not soon enough.

San Jose had the NHL's best penalty-killing unit during the regular season at 85.8 percent and allowed a League-low 44 power-play goals. But in the Playoffs, the Sharks killed only 75 percent — 14th among the 16 teams that qualified for postseason play. The Sharks’ power play was also a playoff disappointment, converting on just eight of 56 opportunities (14.3 percent) after succeeding at an 18.7 percent clip during the regular season.

But special teams weren’t the only part of the Sharks' game to go south when it mattered most. San Jose's special players weren't very special, either. To win in the postseason, your best players must be your best players, and that just wasn't the case with San Jose's offensive leaders, especially against Dallas.

After a 96-point regular season, Joe Thornton managed just 10 points in 13 postseason games. In six games against the Stars, Thornton did not score a goal and was held to a mere three assists. Thornton led the NHL with 67 regular-season assists, but had only eight in 13 playoff games. 

Jonathan Cheechoo had a goal in Game 1 against Dallas, but did not score again in the series. Patrick Marleau had two shorthanded goals against the Stars, but nothing more.

One place where the Sharks won't need to make any changes is in goal. After finishing third in the League with a 2.14 goals-against average during the regular season, Evgeni Nabokov posted a 2.18 postseason GAA.

Although Wilson ultimately lost his job, the coach remained as confident as ever. He told the San Jose Mercury News before his departure that the Sharks have "achieved more since I've been here than any team in the League. We should be rejoicing in how solid our team is now." Indeed, the Sharks won the Pacific Division title while earning a franchise-record 108 points.

Wilson believed his success earned him the right to be back behind the Sharks' bench next season. Trouble was, most of that success came in the regular season. In four seasons in San Jose, Wilson's teams got out of the second round of the playoffs just once.

Wilson didn’t want to admit he might be forced to walk away with unfinished business.

"You look at my record," Wilson said of his 215 regular-season wins since 2003, "It's second to none. We've accomplished more since I’ve been here than any other team, aside from winning the Stanley Cup. That's next on our list to cross off.”

Unfortunately for Wilson, he got crossed off the list first.

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