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Sharks look for answers that will yield Final trip

by Eric Gilmore /
SAN JOSE, Calif.  -- If the puck had taken a few different bounces Tuesday night at Vancouver, Sharks captain Joe Thornton would have spent Thursday afternoon preparing to play Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals.

Instead, Thornton was cleaning out his locker and rehashing another close-but-no-Stanley-Cup season before heading to the hospital for surgery on his broken pinky.

"It's still pretty tough," Thornton said of the Sharks' 3-2 double-overtime loss in Game 5. "You wanted to play tonight, and obviously you're not. It's still tough and I'm sure it's going to sting for a little bit. But we have a great group of guys in here who are going to come back next year and want it even more. I'm optimistic about the future.

"We just know how close this team is (to winning a Stanley Cup). You get in the postseason, that's your goal in training camp. As you go along and start winning some games, you kind of think how close you are to winning the big thing. We realized how close we are as a group to get there. We just have to continue to get better and keep pushing each other and eventually we'll hoist that thing."

A substantial core from a Sharks team that has reached back-to-back Western Conference Finals is under contract for next season. That group includes Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Dan Boyle, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture, Douglas Murray and Antti Niemi.

Only seven Sharks are headed for unrestricted free agency -- Ben Eager, Kent Huskins, Jamal Mayers, Scott Nichol, Niclas Wallin, Kyle Wellwood and Ian White -- while Devin Setoguchi, Jamie McGinn, Benn Ferriero and Andrew Desjardins will be restricted free agents.

"We'll change some pieces, we'll look at the way we play, some things that we do on the ice, like we always do, and come back and try to make them better," coach Todd McLellan said. "But we feel we're a top team in the League. We plan on staying there, and we plan on expanding it, as we always do."

Boyle said it's going to take some time before he can "turn the page" on the Sharks' five-game loss to Vancouver, especially the Game 5 defeat that ended with a fluky goal by Canuck defenseman Kevin Bieksa.

"I'm still kind of having nightmares about it and having a hard time digesting this moment," Boyle said. "It's a very, very tough loss. Still a couple of days later I'm having a hard time of it.

"I still think it was our series. I thought we were the better team coming in. I like the core of this team. Unfortunately guys are going to lose their jobs or have to go somewhere else. That's the nature of it. It's unfortunate because I think we're that close."

The Sharks have to wonder what might have been if not for a string of injuries that struck some of their top players at the worst time. Thornton broke his pinky late in the regular season – the bone at the tip was severed. He also suffered a separated shoulder in Game 4 against Vancouver but played in Game 5.

Clowe suffered a separated shoulder in Game 5 against Detroit on a big hit by Niklas Kronwall but returned after missing just one game, despite being so sore he needed help getting his jersey on and the laces on his skates tied. He might need surgery. Couture broke his nose in a collision with Clowe in Game 3 against Vancouver but didn't miss a game. Heatley broke a hand during the regular season, then suffered a high ankle sprain in Game 3 against the Canucks but played the final two games. Boyle damaged a ligament in his left knee on March 17 against Minnesota. He played the rest of the season while wearing a brace and will undergo arthroscopic surgery.

Jason Demers suffered a high ankle sprain in Game 7 against Detroit and didn't play against Vancouver, leaving the Sharks without one of their fastest defensemen. Nichol suffered a serious laceration above his knee in Game 2 against the Canucks and missed the final three games.

"It's frustrating," Clowe said. "We were here last year and our ultimate goal this year was to get back here and make a step and make it to the finals and win it all. When you have a team like we have your goal has to be to win the Cup. We have a really good team.

"It's a double-edged sword. You have to be proud. I think this year more than any other year since I've been here you can see the effects of a playoff battle on our team. That's a good sign. Guys were laying it on the line. Last year, the Chicago series when it was over, I felt like we could have had a little more. This year I felt like guys laid it out there. Guys put their bodies on the line. Those playoff battles that everyone talks about and how your body takes a beating and you mentally take a beating. We felt that this year."

McLellan said the Sharks took some positive steps this season, but both he and General Manager Doug Wilson stressed the importance of getting off to a faster start next season. The Sharks struggled early and didn't truly get untracked until after a six-game losing streak in January. They had to fight hard just to get into the playoffs, and Wilson said that extra wear and tear might have led to some of the injuries.

"You wanted to play tonight, and obviously you're not. It's still tough and I'm sure it's going to sting for a little bit. But we have a great group of guys in here who are going to come back next year and want it even more. I'm optimistic about the future."
-- Joe Thornton

"When you look at our year as a whole, I don't think we played very well obviously to begin with," McLellan said. "We weren't engaged. When we decided that it was important and we were going to compete the way we could, we became a very good hockey club, carried that through into the playoffs. Probably didn't play completely to our potential, especially in that last round against Vancouver, but I don't want to take anything away from the Canucks. They were a very good team, and once again we have some work to do."

Throughout the season, McLellan talked about his team needing to grow, to take steps toward the ultimate goal.

"We went on the losing streak, but after that we made some decisions," McLellan said. "I think you start with your captain and work down. Anybody who watched (Thornton) play this year, you don't have to be a real astute hockey fan to see his growth and his leadership ability in the locker room.

"I thought the leadership group as a whole was very good, as good as we've had. And then individually there were a number of players that made strides, went in the right direction. Logan Couture is a prime example. Others didn't expand or didn't get to the level that we'd like them to, so they'll be challenged again."

Couture, for one, sounded ready to get back on the ice.

"I love playing in San Jose. I love the fans, I love the team, guys on this team are unbelievable," Couture said. "I don't want to play anywhere else. I just want to play in San Jose. It's so fun to be out here. Fans are so proud. We've been a good team for the past couple of years. I trust the organization. We want to win. That's our goal. We're not happy with the way the season ended. Obviously we still want to be playing hockey. Our goal here is to win the Stanley Cup. We want to do it. We want to do it next year."

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