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Sharks 'hit brick wall' in Stanley Cup Final loss to Penguins

The San Jose Sharks made painful comparisons to losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final. 

Forward Patrick Marleau said it was “a lot like being hit by a truck.”

Said forward Logan Couture, “it’s like you hit a brick wall.” 

In the end, Joe Thornton summed it up perfectly after San Jose was downed in Game 6 at home against the Penguins.

“It sucks. That's the bottom line. It sucks,” he said.

These Sharks roared into the Cup Final as one of the hottest teams in hockey. They slayed the big and brawny Los Angeles Kings, their longstanding divisional demon, in the first-round. They survived against the speedy Nashville Predators in the second-round.

They out-slugged the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final.

Their power play was humming along at 27 percent. Their first line was dynamic. Joe Pavelski led the playoffs before the Cup Final with 13 goals. Joe Thornton had 18 points in 18 games. Tomas Hertl was healthy and playing some of the best hockey in his career. 

But in the last six games, the Sharks’ big players came undone. Their power play was 1-for-12 in the Cup Final. Thornton played well, but Pavelski – the main finisher on his line – seemed off with just one goal, an empty netter in Game 5. Hertl was injured in Game 2 and never returned.

Defenseman Brent Burns was decent with four points in six games but he wasn’t the same game-controlling maestro he had been in previous series when he had 20 points in 18 games. Patrick Marleau had one goal.

Overall, their hybrid speed/power game was neutralized by the quickness and aggressiveness of the Penguins.

The only position player who seemed to thrive in the Cup Final was Couture who had six points and led the playoffs in scoring with 30 points in 24 games played.

They won one game by way of overtime and another when goaltender Martin Jones stole Game 5 in Pittsburgh.

The Penguins outshot the Sharks 206-139. Pittsburgh also held a territorial advantage this series and took 394 shot attempts to 344 for the Sharks.

“Their speed, the pressure they put on with their speed. It's not just their speed, they have good sticks, too,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said of the Penguins. “They force you into quicker decisions. They really challenge your execution. We hadn't seen pressure and sticks like that through the first three rounds. I think our execution was an issue because of that.” 

Even in Game 6, the Sharks seemed to go quiet when it mattered most in the third period when they fired two shots on goal.

Wrote former Sharks broadcaster Drew Remenda in a diary for the San Jose Mercury News, “Sometimes you give everything you can but its just not enough. The Pittsburgh Penguins speed was the kryptonite to the super performances the Sharks had put out the previous three series.”

Did the Sharks’ window of opportunity close with this group led by longtime organizational stalwarts Thornton, Marleau and Pavelski? Or did this run show that this team has a few kicks at the can left with their current leaders?

Even at age 36, Thornton had arguably the best overall season of his career with 82 points in the regular season along with consistently strong play in the postseason. The 36-year-old Marleau had 25 goals in the regular season and while he may not be the cornerstone he once was, DeBoer figured out a way to maximize Marleau at both center and wing this past year. Pavelski is one of the top snipers in the NHL.

Marleau and Thornton both have one year left on their contracts and even if both don’t come back after 2016-17, San Jose showed they have some strong core pieces.

The emergence of Burns, who had 75 points this past season, along with Couture in the playoffs were all positive signs of growth for this group in the immediate future.

The biggest positive development was probably the 26-year-old Jones, who finished the Cup Final with a 2.27 goal-against average and .932 save percentage in six games. Last offseason the Sharks took a chance on Jones, who had never been a starter in his NHL career, and lavished him with a three-year $9 million contract after a trade from the Boston Bruins. Jones was acquired by Boston in a draft day trade with the Los Angeles Kings.

“What do you say about him? One of the all-time best goaltending performances in a Final probably ever, or right up there anyway,” DeBoer said. “I thought he was sensational every game we played. Gave us a chance to compete and get it to six games.”  

Before the season, the Sharks hoped to have a nice bounce-back from the prior year when they missed the playoffs. General manager Doug Wilson had added Jones, Joel Ward and Paul Martin along with hiring DeBoer. But it was unclear how it would all mesh.

There were also questions of whether the team was over some of the squabbles in 2014-15. Thornton was stripped of his captaincy in the 2014 offseason and there were many lingering emotions about the ordeal along with blowing a 3-0 lead to the Kings in the first-round of the prior postseason. 

But this team proved it was different and ready to push themselves deeper in the playoffs than any prior group of Sharks. Beating the Kings got the proverbial ‘monkey off their backs.’

Making a Stanley Cup Final – after three total appearances to a Western Conference Final in their 25-year franchise history – was a major moment for the Sharks.

But they also know how hard it is to get to this point which is why they had hoped to not waste this chance.

Both Marleau and Thornton had played a combined 2,778 NHL regular season games and 315 playoff games before their first Cup Final game.

The 58-year-old Wilson, who played 1,024 NHL games between the Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks has never won a Stanley Cup as a player or an executive.

It was a great season by the Sharks, but also a painful missed opportunity and a moment they want to seize again in the near future.

“The end is like hitting a wall. You've been going since September with 106 games. How many hundreds of thousands of miles in the air? A special group. But only one team can win. That doesn't take anything away from what those guys accomplished,” DeBoer said. “I don't think anyone should ever question the leadership or the character or the will of the group of men in there. I think it's been misplaced for a decade.  I would hope they answered some questions. Let's be honest. Not many people have us making the playoffs.  Not many people had us beating L.A.  On and on. I thought a lot of questions were answered by that group.” 

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